When you don’t care much about something in Mexico, it is very popular to say “me importa un cacahuate” or “me vale un cacahuate.” This translates to something like “I don’t care enough” or “I couldn’t care less,” the word cacahuate being used for that “less or not enough.” That may be in regards to the tiny size of an individual peeled peanut, but ironically, cacahuates or peanuts mean a lot to Mexico and Mexicans.
Peanuts have been in Mexico’s culinary repertoire since Pre-Hispanic times. Though its origins can be traced to Southern Latin America, specifically Peru, and it is said to have been domesticated in Bolivia or Paraguay, when the Spanish arrived in Mexico they found it for sale in the street markets where it was a staple.
Used to snack on, be it raw, roasted, toasted, steamed, salted or spiced up and combined with other ingredients like in Pico de Gallos; as a thickener for Mole sauces or salsas, soups and stews; it’s oil extracted and used in and out of the kitchen; in “palanqueta” or bark form, entirely covered and hardened in some kind of a sweet and thick syrup and other sweets and even drinks! As times have moved on, the peanut not only remains central to our eating but also to our celebrating.
See me in the blue dress in the photo below?
Me and my sister (on the right with the white sweater) are proudly carrying a bag of treasures gathered from a broken down piñata! Traditionally, piñatas have been filled with oranges to eat, fresh sugar cane pieces to suck, and peanuts to munch on. So, of course, kids run like crazy once the piñata breaks not to be hit hard and then run back like crazy once everything hits the floor. It is in more recent times that candy and toys have been added.
So, smart to include peanuts for sure: healthy and entertaining to an extreme, as kids can spend hours cracking and peeling those peanuts. What’s more, they are incredibly nutritious. Rich in niacin, Vitamin E, fiber, proteins and many other nutrients, it is full of antioxidants and it is free, naturally of trans-fats and sodium.
Another irony is that peanuts, one of the most popular “nut” in the world, are actually not from the “nut” family. The peanut is a legume from a small flowering plant, and it grows in a really strange way: once the flower is pollinated, it gets heavier and leans toward the ground where it pushes its heavy, woody seed underground and grows into a legume pod with beans inside, in this case, peanuts.
The odd way peanuts grow is said to have confused the Spaniards who couldn’t figure out how the flower and legume could be in different places. In fact, the Náhuatl word given to it by the Aztecs was “cacahuatl,” meaning cocoa bean from the earth.
The Spanish and Portuguese took the peanuts to other parts of the world, including Africa, and it was by means of the slave trade that they came into the United States. No wonder some people think that peanuts come from Africa. Ingredients find a funny and fascinating way to move around the globe…
Although the peanuts were used thoroughly in Mexican kitchens before the Spanish arrived, it was the Spanish nuns that gave the peanuts a sweeter use in the convent kitchens, creating all sorts of marzipans, pastes and cookies. Peanuts were a replacement for almonds, which they had been accustomed to using in Spain.
Peanuts are a key ingredient in modern Mexican cooking, used in more and more ways as time goes by.
There is just something a little more sweet or fresh about peanuts cooked from their raw state, especially if you have monsters you need to keep busy and you need to peel a few dozens. You can look for un-shelled, raw, skinless peanuts in your local natural foods store or mainstream stores too. However, sometimes they are tricky to find raw. You can use roasted instead. You can also use roasted or raw already shelled unsalted peanuts.
It’s best to store peanuts in an airtight container. They will keep in your pantry for up to a month or in your freezer for six months. Do watch out though, if left unattended or not properly sealed, their delicious fresh and almost sweet taste can turn bitter, old and unpleasant.
Aside from being careful with not letting them age or get bitter if bought on the shell, you may want to start stuffing them in your own piñatas…