A recent article in The New York Times inspired me to return to tepary beans. I had eaten and written about them six years ago, but had concentrated on chana dal and other beans like garbanzos and kidney and black beans in the meanwhile.
After all, why should we bother to seek out and cook the little-known tepary beans? They are just one of many types of beans. One of my bean books says that there are 7,500 varieties in the world.
All of them – except for broad (fava) beans, which have a high glycemic index – are among the most healthy foods for people with diabetes. They are not only low glycemic but also among the best sources of fiber, many vitamins and minerals, and protein. They are probably the least expensive quality food.
But unlike common beans, you won’t find teparies already canned for you. They are also hard to find and they aren’t nearly as cheap as some other beans. The best price that I’ve found for teparies are $3.50 per pound at Native Seeds/SEARCH, a non-profit conservation group. By comparison you can get pintos for less than 40¢ per pound.
The acronym in Native Seeds/SEARCH stands for Southwestern Endangered Arid-lands Resource Clearing House. This organization studies the value of native desert foods for controlling diabetes among Native Americans and Hispanic Americans of the border region.
The reasons to eat teparies far outweigh their minor disadvantages. The soybeans is the only other bean that is as high in protein, but it sure doesn’t taste as good, unless you do a lot to it, like making it into something else like tofu, meat substitutes, soymilk, and soy cheese.
“The protein content of dried uncooked tepary bean seeds ranges from 17 to 27 percent, but most are in the 23 to 25 percent range, Gary Nabhan, PhD, tells me. “My MS thesis was on this from University of Arizona.”
Dr. Nabhan was a cofounder of Native Seeds/SEARCH and is the one certified genius I know. He won a MacArthur Fellowship (sometimes nicknamed the “genius grant”) in 1990 for his cross-cultural collaborations with Native Americans.
The tepary bean was an important part of the traditional Pima Indian diet, until they adopted the Western – i.e. junk food – diet. Nowadays, these people, who call themselves the Akimel O’Odham, have the highest rate of diabetes in the world.
Like me, they are returning to teparies. Another good reason for all of us to eat teparies is that, except for chana dal, they are among those beans with the lowest glycemic index, about 30.
Teparies have a “dark” pleasantly earthy taste. They go beautifully with cumin, and with garlic and olive oil and chilies as well as with pungent herbs such as sage, bay, oregano and thyme. Basically, they go best with the seasonings indigenous to the Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico.
Be forewarned, however, that these beans are tiny and come with a lot of pebbles and dirt. The beans are hardly larger than some of the pebbles, so anyone who wants to cook with them has to have excellent close-range eyesight and the time to pick through them thoroughly enough to remove the stones. You also need to wash them a couple of changes of water to remove the dirt. Teparies take about 3 hours to cook after soaking them for about 8 hours.
For years I have corresponded with my friend Alexandra about tepary beans. She once wrote me that you can make a robust soup by combining cooked teparies with cooked barley.
I wrote her that I cooked up a simple recipe with tepary beans, a couple of onions, celery, and lots of garlic. It was delicious.
Because of my deep Native American roots (my fifth great-grandmothers was a member of the Narragansett tribe, which makes me 1/128 Indian), I especially want to eat the foods of my heritage. But I don’t find the other native foods as tasty and as interesting as tepary beans. Acorns, for example, are pretty bitter and I never could figure out how to make good use of mesquite flour.
You don’t have to be a Native American like me to enjoy and benefit from these great beans. Eating teparies and other beans as a regular part of your diet really does help keep diabetes in check.
This comment is from Ann Williams, RN, CDE :
In your article about tepary beans, you said that acorn is too bitter to eat. According to articles I have read about preparation techniques used by indigenous people, it is not bitter if you allow the tannic acid to leach out. Traditionally, this was done by letting a slow stream of water run over the shelled acorns. I once had a book of recipes that said the author’s grandmother used to do that by putting shelled acorns in a loosely-woven basket in a stream. A more modern person used a pillowcase. Here is a web site that describes leaching ground acorn meats on a sand bed:
Jaime De Angulo, a linguist of Spanish heritage who lived with indigenous people in northern California in the early 1900s, wrote that acorn mush was cooked in a tightly woven basket. The acorn meal and water were placed in the basket and heated by dropping in stone that had been heated in a fire. It was very bland, with a slight sweetness, a bit like oatmeal or corn meal mush.
P. S. In my search for tepary beans, I found a wonderful site with many varieties of beans.
I personally have never tried these techniques myself, and know of them only through reading about them.
It would be wonderful to hear from someone who has actually used one or more of these techniques — preferably a person whose ancestors cooked acorns, who could add some of the particular details that are known only by someone who has received such recipes from older family members.
This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.