Around the Table: Discovering the Bambara Ground Nut

A hand holding a bunch of ground nuts

Five years ago, Chef Tyler Brown came across a reference to the bambara ground nut, a complete-protein “superfood” of West African origin that had been essentially lost to the world’s major food systems. A legume that is akin to a peanut and not far from a chickpea, the bambara fixes nitrogen in the soil, requires very little water and doesn’t like to be fertilized. The questions came quickly – why isn’t anyone growing them, and where can we find some seeds?

Brown called on his network of lovers and growers of rare things and was able to source a handful of white bambara seeds in 2017, putting them in the ground and harvesting a successful crop of about 30 nuts (or seeds) per plant. That experience answered the first question.

“We realized that they are very fragile and difficult to harvest, and about 30 percent of the yield ends up staying in the ground,” he says. “The answer was simply that it was too labor intensive to become a major agricultural product, so it was basically abandoned as a crop.”

Fast forward to 2022, and the seed bank at Southall is well stocked with white bambara nuts. Last year’s 400 seeds grew 380 plants, all of which bloomed, set fruit and provided a harvest in the fall. Farm Manager Sarah Edmonds and her team scoured their resources for research data, experimented with germination and growing techniques and learned valuable lessons in year five. This spring, 1,000 plants will go in the ground with the hope that guests will be able to taste the bambara later in the year.

The Southall cultivation team that tended the ground nuts last year –planting them out after the danger of frost had passed in the early spring, weeding them through the heat of the summer, then carefully hand-harvesting, shelling, cleaning, drying and storing the haul after a long 170 days – had their first opportunity to taste them last week.

Southall Chefs Andrew Klamar and Nate Leonard recognized the significance of the opportunity to feed the ones who brought the food to the kitchen as an important representation of the Farm’s mission, the circle of life, and the sense of honor we hold for each other and our work.

A riff on traditional Southern “pot likker” based batch of greens or beans, the chefs rendered bacon fat, bruleed sweet onion, added chicken stock, bay and thyme, and let it all simmer for hours before finishing the creamy bambaras with butter. On a cold, rainy winter day, after a shift spent working outside, the eight-member farm team gathered to taste what they’d spent nearly half the past year producing.

“It’s beautifully deep and complex in flavor – the salty peanut flavor on the front, then it moves into an earthy goodness and finishes very creamy. My brain was expecting a chickpea consistency because of the way they grow, but it’s so smooth in texture,” Edmonds describes her first bambara meal.

“More importantly, the consideration of the culinary team in wanting to recognize the cultivation team is inspiring – it reminds us all of the why of what we’re doing here, and the importance of what we’ll soon be able to share with the world.”