Today Chinese class got pretty heated, and it was all thanks to beans. We were arguing what use of the bean is more felicitous—the sweet bean pastes of Chinese cuisine or the savory bean dishes of Latin cuisine. It was our teacher and our exchange student from Shanghai versus myself and my friend Alex. Alex and I were arguing that beans are better suited to a savory dish since they are starches, and most other starches are used in savory dishes, not sweet dishes. They were saying that beans are naturally sugary so it doesn’t make sense to try to take that out. We wouldn’t budge: Alex and I were steadfast with our burritos and they were adamant about their sesame bean buns. We realized we were in a legume stalemate, so we ended the argument.
I left class wondering what created the bean rift. Why had Chinese cuisine adopted a sweet bean paste and Latin culture savory bean dishes? It baffled me that in both cases the bean preparation was similar in almost every dish—there are almost no savory Chinese bean dishes and almost no sweet Latin bean dishes. What caused the divide?
I did some research. I discovered that the beans used for sweet bean paste are called “adzuki” beans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adzuki_bean. They’re a totally different kind of bean from pinto beans, the bean used for making refried beans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinto_bean. That makes sense—why would there be one specific species of bean used across the whole world. I realized I had made a ridiculous assumption in thinking that the sweet beans were the same as the beans in my chili. But, as I read on, I realized I wasn’t so crazy.
As the wiki article on pinto beans says, they are not a unique species per se; they are simply a variation of the common bean, which is the same plant that grows string beans. String beans…which are used all the time in Chinese food. In fact, according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaseolus_vulgaris), China is the world’s largest grower of string beans. So they have the same beans—they just don’t use them the same way. There is nothing close to refried beans. So the adzuki bean was sweeter, but why did the string beans used so commonly not manifest themselves as something closer to Latin cuisine?
At this point, I realized any further contemplation and research into the history of bean politics was probably unadvisable, but what can I say—I’ve bean obsessed. Random divides between cuisines like this are amazing because they usually show you a lot about the history and culture of a place (in this case it taught me a little biology). Historians track spice routes by looking at maps and studying records, but we can all do the same by going out and having a bite to eat. America is a great example of this, because in one dish you might be able to see influences from all over the world. A teriyaki burger could have influences from Japan, Germany, France, England—or it could just be some meat on a bun. It just depends on your tastes.