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The beautiful broad bean is far more than the sum of its seemingly simple parts. It has almost magical restorative powers. It’s delicious too. Berrin Torolsan shows how to make the most of these bundles of joy
Besides being quite delicious, the simple broad bean is nothing short of a little bundle of magic. Rich in minerals and vitamins, it contains the chemical L-dopa, which feeds dopamine and adrenaline to the brain and body. This in turn stimulates motor functions, improves energy levels, supports the immune system, increases the libido and even rejuvenates cells. As well as having all these wonderful effects, it is an excellent source of non-animal protein.
Packed with nutrients, broad beans, like other legumes such as peas, chickpeas and lentils, seem to have been on mankind’s menu since the beginning. A handful of broad-bean seeds unearthed by Japanese archaeologists at Tell el-Kerkh in northern Syria, contemporary with the nearby and better-known Neolithic site of Göbeklitepe in southeast Turkey, show that the use and cultivation of pulses took place much earlier than previously supposed. They are still intact and have been carbon-dated to the 10th millennium BC – the earliest archaeobotanical finds of broad beans.
Broad beans, or fava beans (Vicia faba), seem to have spread rapidly into post-glacial Europe and were one of the continent’s most important staples. In 10th-century Cordoba, Arib ibn Said writes lovingly in his agricultural calendar, of “… the month of March, when the early roses and lilies begin to bloom and in the vegetable gardens broad beans take shape. Quails suddenly make their appearance; the silkworm hatches out…”.
Broad-bean gardens are a delightful sight, and their vibrant tall green plants with scented black-freckled white blossoms are popular with bees, which help in pollination although the plant is self-fertilising. A hardy annual, it grows effortlessly in a wide range of soils, and is one of the few legumes that can be planted in late autumn, when it grows slowly, surviving the harsh winter months to be harvested in spring. In the fields it is sown after cereals are harvested to enrich the soil’s nutrients by helping to fix nitrogen. Broad beans can be dried and stored for many years and still germinate happily when sown.
The varieties cultivated as a vegetable in Turkey generally have long pods of six to eight seeds. The tender seed pods are often collected in the early days of spring, before the seeds have fully developed, to be cooked as a vegetable, like French beans. As well as vitamin B, fresh green broad beans contain an added bonus of vitamins A and C, which are unrivalled in reviving the system at the end of winter. Market stalls are piled with the green, velvety pods, which after the long winter are very popular with Istanbulus, who ignore the high price – almost every shopping basket seems to have a handful, along with a bunch of dill. While the Sakı and Bayrampaşa varieties used to be the most sought-after fresh cultivars, today the cross of local varieties with each other and with imported seeds and has left us with just the one type, albeit tasty and delicious.
The Roman gourmet Apicius in the first century gives a recipe for Fabaceae virides, green beans, in his De re coquinaria. Cooked in olive oil, they are served with chopped leeks. He also lists a concicla, a mash of dried broad beans cooked with olive oil, seasoned with spices, wine and the fermented fish sauce garum.
To preserve broad beans as a winter legume, the pods are left to ripen on the plant. They are shelled, the leathery skin is removed and the kernel is split in two, then left to dry in the sun. Until the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when numerous bean species, such as haricot and kidney beans, were introduced from the New World, the Old World was dependent on the broad bean both as a staple and as essential fodder. Even today broad-bean flour is included in animal feed – for cattle, sheep, poultry, rabbits and even fish. In the countryside bakla, the Turkish for broad bean, is commonly used to describe all beans. The word is deeply rooted in Turkish idioms. The patches on dappled grey horses resemble the shape of broad beans, so they are bakla kiri. Tiny houses are called nohut oda bakla sofa – chickpea room, broad-bean hall, akin to the Scots “but and ben”.
In his dietary manual, the scientist Mahmut Şirvani, physician to Mehmed the Conqueror’s father, Murad II (1421–51), includes recipes for both fresh and dried broad beans. Among them are a broad-bean pickle made with mature fresh beans and vinegar, and a meat stew – taze bakla kalyesi – containing tender fresh beans, which was described as good for “softening the character”. Another recipe is for a spicy mutton stew with dried split beans, served with sumac and lemon juice to cut the rich sauce, a dish recommended for both a clear complexion and increased potency.
In his book Müntahab-ı Şifa (A Guide to Health) Şirvani’s contemporary, Celalüddin Hızır from Birgi, another physician, gives numerous remedies for a variety of illnesses made with wild or cultivated broad beans.
Two centuries later, a physician from Central Asia, the scholar Bahadur Khan, Sultan of Bukhara, compiled a voluminous pharmacopoeia in Persian and wrote a medical treatise in Turkic Chagatai, Tabiblik Kitabı (A Book of medicine). He prescribes broad-bean tea for chronic coughs: *“baquilla beş batman çah suyi bila gaynagay…” – “Boil broad beans in five measures of water to make a tea…”
The Topkapı’s palace kitchens would have green broad beans in their tender pods delivered in spring from the extensive imperial gardens, huge enterprises that supplied the palace with fresh vegetables, fruit and cut flowers and sold the surplus in the markets as a cash crop. The consumption of fresh broad beans (bakla-i taze) by the imperial family increased from half a ton in the 15th century to nearly two tons in the 17th, as the population of the royal household increased. Dried legumes such as chickpeas, peas, lentils, beans and broad beans, all classified as bakliyat (kinds of broad bean), used to be supplied by the buyers, who every year would choose the best crop from different Anatolian farmers.
Today both fresh and dried broad beans are still very much part of the Turkish diet, enjoyed for their deliciousness and believed to have restorative qualities. Rich in fibre, vitamins, potassium and iron, the beans are also extremely popular with the health-conscious and, thanks to their L-dopa content, are recommended as an alternative to energy-, mood- and motivation-boosting drugs. Bean extracts are even marketed as a natural aphrodisiac.
So, when you are feeling a little low or tired, why not follow the example of our Neolithic ancestors? You might just find that a bowl of broad beans brightens your day.
Order Cornucopia 53 for Berrin Torolsan’s wonderful broad bean recipes.
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