Food

Perks of peanut

The versatile groundnut is a protein-packed addition to diet

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Saturday 24 February 2024
Peanuts are used in many traditional recipes, such as this chutney to eat with breakfast staples (Photograph: Vibha Varshney)

In Delhi, during the bitterly cold winter winds experienced in December and January, one can find vendors selling groundnut pods on pavements next to bus stops. Commuters buy the hot seeds, roasted in sand or salt, to munch on while waiting for a bus. The pods are equally popular in local trains, as a way to pass the time while travelling. They are consumed seasoned with just salt, or with salt and green chillies. Another favourite winter snack is the chikki or groundnut brittle, made with the roasted nuts and molten jaggery.

Groundnut (Arachis hypogaea), also known as peanut, is not just used as a snack but finds use in traditional recipes across states. In Andhra Pradesh, the seeds are boiled and served for breakfast while in Maharashtra, coarsely ground peanuts are added to sabudana khichdi, a dish made with sago or tapioca pearls. In Madhya Pradesh, these seeds are used in poha and in Gujarat, a peanut chutney is relished with breakfast staples such as khakhra (see recipe). In the South, a dry chutney or podi made of groundnuts is consumed with idlis and dosas and also added to dal.

Groundnut is rich in protein, which makes up 26-28 per cent of its nutrient content. This is higher than in eggs, dairy products and meats; a 28 g serving of groundnuts can provide as much as 12 per cent of recommended daily protein allowance. The seeds are also rich in minerals like calcium, iron and vitamins A and B.

The seeds are 48-50 per cent oil, most of which is good fat. Some 50 per cent of the oil is monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) and 30 per cent polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA), which help lower cholesterol and are good for heart health. In India, most of the groundnut produced is used to extract oil and around 5 per cent is consumed as a snack or in recipes.

There are efforts to improve the nutrition of the nut. In 2019, researchers under the All-India Co-ordinated Research Project on Groundnut identified two peanut lines with about 80 per cent oleic acid, which is a MUFA that can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. These varieties can be used to prepare healthier oil with longer shelf life.

The oil also has commercial uses other than food and is an ingredient in soaps, beauty creams, medical ointments and creams, paints and lubricants. Groundnut oil cake is used as animal and poultry feed as well as an organic fertiliser.

In addition, groundnut leaves serve as a rich source of cattle feed, which the shell is used in manufacturing industrial products like cardboard and also as fuel.

Production enigma

Groundnut has a fascinating life cycle. The plant’s yellow flowers emerge around the lower portion, and after pollination the fertilised ovary begins to form a “peg” that grows downward into the soil.

The embryo at the tip of the peg matures to form the pods below the soil. A leguminous plant, peanut fixes atmospheric nitrogen and adds 100-120 kg of nitrogen in the field per hectare (ha) per season.

Unlike mustard and sesame, which archaeological sites suggest have been used in India since prehistoric times, groundnut has been introduced more recently — sometime in the 1600s, according to a 2004 report, Peanut in India: History, Production, and Utilization by Shankarappa Talawar of the University of Georgia, US. Brazil is likely to be its centre of origin, as the majority of its species are found here. There is not much clarity on how the pod reached India. The 2004 report lists some theories — that it was introduced by the Jesuit fathers who followed Vasco de Gama, or that it came from China or African colonies. Yet another belief is that the nut was introduced via the Philippines — this may be why in the erstwhile Madras presidency’s South Arcot district, it was known as manilakottai or “nut from Manila”.

Now, India is the second largest producer of this protein-rich legume as well as a major exporter, sending it to 65 countries. As per advance estimates of kharif production released by the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare in October 2023, some 7.82 million tonnes of groundnut may be produced in 2023-24. Gujarat is the largest producer with 42 per cent of the total production, followed by Rajasthan (17 per cent), Tamil Nadu (11 per cent), Andhra Pradesh (9 per cent), Karnataka (6 per cent).

However, data from recent years suggests that groundnut cultivation is decreasing in many states. For example, in Gujarat area under peanut dipped from 1.7 million ha in 2016-17 to 1.6 million ha in 2019-20, says ministry data. Though this increased to 1.9 million ha in 2021-22, uncertainty in weather and irrigation could be an issue in the future, says a January 2023 study in the journal Mausam. The crop requires stringent water management and is susceptible to climate change. Rise in temperature and rainfall in groundnut-growing areas like Gujarat could reduce production by 32 per cent in 2071-2100 as against 1961-1990, says the study by Gujarat researchers.

Peanuts are now a high-value commodity. At Safal, the fruit and vegetable store under milk cooperative Mother Dairy, a 400 g bag of peanuts is R65. The store sells chana dal at Rs 51 for 500g. Soon, the phrase “paid in peanuts” may not be apt to refer to receiving less money.

RECIPE - PEANUT CHUTNEY

Ingredients
  • Groundnut seeds: 1 cup
  • Green chillies: 5-6
  • Turmeric powder: 1/4 tsp
  • Jaggery: 1/2 tsp
  • Peanut oil: 1 tbsp
  • Lemon juice: 4 tbsp
  • Salt to taste
Method

Soak the seeds overnight in water. Remove the water and the outer pink skin. Put the seeds in a blender, add the other ingredients and grind coarsely. Adjust the consistency with a little water if needed. The chutney is ready and can be stored for a week in the refrigerator.

This was first published in the 1-15 February, 2024 print edition of Down To Earth

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