On the Peanut Trail

Discovering the tasty legume in Mililani.

Without much thought, I often grab a handful of peanuts when I’m hungry. I like the crunchy kind, Virginia peanuts, I think they are. And, once in a while, I want some boiled peanuts, those soft, bean-like peanuts I grew up on, a traditional Hawai’i preparation that could have emigrated from the American South or China, where peanuts are plentiful.

Hai Cam shows off part of her peanut crop. The average American, by the way, eats about six pounds of peanuts and peanut butter a year. photo: Monte Costa

Never having paid much attention to the goober, I recently read an article about peanut growing in Georgia and coincidentally found some fresh peanuts here at a farmers’ market. My interest was piqued: peanuts grow in Hawai’i?

Yes, immigrant farmers grow peanuts in Mililani, where small plots are filled with a variety of crops. One Laotian farmer, Hai Cam, grows a few rows of peanuts at a time, enough to supply a small amount of friends and customers.

Peanuts are not a nut; they are a legume–like beans and peas–that are edible seeds enclosed in pods. Legumes are the best source of protein in the plant kingdom. Unlike the nuts that grow on trees, peanut plants are bushes, about a foot-and-a-half tall, with oval, green leaves.

Cam grows peanuts from seed, sown in clusters about 18 inches apart. Shoots appear within a few days of planting, and when the plants are about 6 inches tall, Cam applies fertilizer. Other than that, sunshine and a good watering every few days are about all these plants need to grow.

In time, a pretty, yellow flower forms and pollinates itself. Then long tendrils from the flower bury themselves in the ground, where clumps of peanut pods grow beneath the surface (hence, they are also known as ground nuts).

It takes about five months for peanuts to mature, depending on the variety. To harvest them, Cam tugs at the base of the bushy green leaves at the surface, pulling up a cluster of peanuts masked in dirt. Then she strips the pods from their root-like attachments and washes them thoroughly to rid them of the dirt that clings to the dimpled surface of the peanuts.

Cam grows the Valencia variety, which has three to five kernels in a pod. Other peanut varieties–Runners, Spanish and Virginia–usually have only two kernels in a pod. The Valencias are very sweet straight from the pod, almost like fresh peas, and maintain their sweetness after they are cooked.

According to Cam, peanuts grow best in the warm summer months, but she plants them throughout the year. It’s warm enough in the Islands to do so, and the plant is good for the soil, as it puts nitrogen back into the ground.

Peanuts are a healthy food: they are a good source of protein, high in folate, vitamins E and B and house a variety of trace minerals that are important to good health. Peanuts have unsaturated fat and contain no cholesterol, which means they play a good role in cardiac health. Like red wine, peanuts contain reservatrol, an antioxidant that researchers link to a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease.

In Hawai’i, you can find raw peanuts in their shell in some supermarkets and in natural food stores; these are imported from the Mainland. Or, look for Hawai’i-grown peanuts at swap meets, open markets and farmers’ markets. Prepare the raw peanuts as you like–boiled, roasted, fried or even made into peanut butter. Then grab a handful and enjoy, knowing that you can indeed grow just about anything in Hawai’i.