Thursday, April 5, 2012

Cacahuates: From Soup to Nuts!




If asked to list the staples of Mexican cuisine, most people would name rice, beans, corn, chiles, lime, and cilantro. Well, add peanuts to the list. While used as a thickening agent in many dishes, peanuts also star in salsas and soups. A nutritious snack, throughout Mexico peanuts roasted with chiles and salt are common, but it is in Oaxaca that they are most addictive, typically studded with roasted cloves of garlic and whole chiles. Just try to eat only a few! Cerveza, por favor!
Cacahuates, from the Nahuatl word tlalcacahuatl, are thought to have been discovered in Peru, cultivated by pre-Columbian cultures, and then spread throughout Mesoamerica, and ultimately the world, by the conquistadors. Peanuts are officially a legume, and grow just a few inches under the surface, in light, sandy loam soil. They require five months of warm weather, and an annual rainfall of 500 to 1,000 mm (20 to 39 in) or the equivalent in irrigation.  Our part of Mexico has all the requirements for peanut cultivation, and Oaxaca is the third largest peanut producing state in Mexico.

By coincidence, sea turtles and peanuts share a confluence of economic and ecological spinoff on the Oaxaca coast. When the Mexican government closed the sea turtle fishing industry in 1990, the door to eco-tourism in the area opened (Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga). At the same time, the government introduced a movement toward sustainable agro-economic development to the area. One of the programs established was the cultivation of peanuts and sesame in the community of El Tomatal, near Puerto Escondido.
What was originally an agricultural commodity project became value-added cottage industry post-Hurricane Paulina in 1997. In the devastated communities along the coast, as part of an emergency health plan, workshops were held to teach the local people how to best achieve nutritional value from their crops. The realization that peanuts could be more than just a cash crop for the community, at a time when commodity prices were low, was the impetus for the establishment of Las Productoras de el Tomatal Ecologicas S.C.L. located about 10 km south of Puerto Escondido, in the village of El Tomatal.
 
Roughly signed and palapa roofed, the workshop is home to a women’s co-operative that last year processed over 4 tons of peanuts. They produce organic roasted peanuts, peanut butter, and tahini for an expanding range of markets. The day that we visited recently, 3 of the co-op’s 10 members were sealing and labelling jars of Crema de Cacahuate for a shipment to Mexico City. Productoras’ manager, Constanza  Santos L√≥pez, explained that “nada de hombres” (no men!) were involved in the co-op, with the exception of the husband of one associate who grows the peanuts.
Their peanut butter is delicious, as are the roasted peanuts! The co-op also has also written a recipe pamphlet, Flores y Semillas, showcasing their sesame and peanut products. Here are 2 great peanut recipes for your enjoyment. The first is an adaptation of the Co-op’s Chicken in Cacahuate sauce. The second is one of the most delicious soups you will ever taste! Buen provecho!

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