Origins in South America, flourishes in India

Little wooden pushcarts of vendors selling roasted peanuts in paper cones were one of the main reasons why my sister and I loved visiting beaches in our childhood. Cones would come in different sizes, while munching on them we always counted the peanuts to see whose cone had more. Whoever lost insisted on a second cone with the hope of being the next winner. It was cheap but healthy time pass.

A fruit not a nut

The first shocker for me as a kid was: peanuts are not nuts, neither is it a pea! They are seeds of certain legume plants.

The term groundnut refers to the entire genus of seeds that ripen underground. But scratch a bit into the botanical definition - peanut is a type of groundnut with botanical name Fabaceae, the legume or pea family. So, that solves the riddle of its name.

This category includes peanuts, goober nut, or monkey nut (UK), which in some cultures and cuisines are simply called groundnuts.

What makes it memorable is an oft asked riddle by kids: Name the plant that flowers above the ground but fruits under the ground? The answer to that would be - Hey nut, it is groundnut!

Another popular limerick of those innocent years was:

A house with two occupants
sometimes one, rarely three
Break the walls,
Eat the boarders,
Then throw me away.

Journey of peanuts to India

Believed to have been first grown in Peru and Brazil in South America, the oldest documentation of groundnuts is in the form of art, peanut designs on jars, dating as far back as 3,500 years ago. There are different schools of thought on how the plant was introduced to India.

According to Leiberherr (1928) peanut was introduced in India in early 16th century by Jesuit Fathers who arrived here soon after Vasco Da Gama’s first visit in 1497. Buchanan, in his travelogue of his journey through Mysore, South Kanara and Malabar regions, in the years 1800-1801 recorded that peanut plant was cultivated with turmeric in Mysore.

Some researchers claim that peanuts must have been introduced to India through Pacific islands or through China.

Peanut was once called Manilakottai, meaning Manila nut, in South Arcot district of Tamil Nadu. That possibly was because it was introduced from Manila in Philippines.

From wherever it would have come, a large part of India proved to be fertile enough for the peanut plant to flourish. Year after year the produce doubled and quadrupled. Demand for peanuts grew rapidly, both as oilseed and as dry fruit. Today India ranks second in world, after China, in groundnut production.

Peanut is a new food item in Indian cuisine. There is no mention of peanut related dish in ancient and medieval Indian scriptures. Even in the absence of its mention in any ancient food it has managed to be a part of Indian diet in almost all states of India.

Groundnut festival

In Bangalore, the IT city of India, there is a festival exclusively for this humble nut. Peanut farmers of Karnataka congregate on Bull Temple Road, Basavangudi in Bangalore with their yearly harvest. The dates are decided according to the lunar calendar and falls on last Monday of Kartika Masa, that is usually on late November or early December.

It is a kind of ritual for the local people to attend the festival; they believe consuming peanuts from the first harvest that is offered to Bull Temple is auspicious and divine! Streets are lined with heaps of unshelled peanuts and eager farmers wait to get their farm produce sold off.

The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) mentions in its site the different groundnut varieties named as: Kadiri-2, Kadiri-3, BG-1, BG-2, Kuber, GAUG-1, GAUG-10, PG-1, T-28, T-64, Chandra, Chitra, Kaushal, Parkash, Amber etc.

Kadalekai Parishe, groundnut festival, as called in local language Kannada, started in the year 1537AD. In those days several villages around present Bangalore grew peanuts and made their livelihood. However, tragedy struck and their peanut fields were ravaged at night by a roving bull. It was no ordinary bull but Nandi Himself.
Nandi is Lord Shiva’s vehicle. So, to please and calm Him down they began praying to Him. Nadaprabhu (landlord) Kempe Gowda dedicated a temple to the Big Bull (Dodda Basavaraj). They installed a huge statue of Nandi, the Bull (4m tall). That is how we have the Big Bull Temple in Basavanagar. Ever since then the farmers from all nearby places offer the first harvest of groundnuts to Him!

GI tag for peanut candy

In the 1940s, Ponnambala Nadar, a grocery store owner in the Kovilpatti town brought out a variation of the ordinary peanut candy. Instead of regular sugar he chose to use sugarcane jaggery (molasses). He was creative enough to give a new shape by spreading the hot molten mix of peanuts and jaggery syrup and cutting the candy into rectangular shapes instead of rolling them into the traditional balls. This last act in fact saved a lot of labour and burnt fingers.

Recently in April 2020, this peanut candy of Kovilpatti in Thoothukudi District in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu got the prestigious geographical indication, GI, tag. They have a special way to make it. Peanuts for Kovilpatti Kadalamittai, are carefully sourced from Aruppukottai town, water from the Thamirabarani River, unique flavour from the use of the special Theni jaggery which is fresh, pale and in soft triangular blocks. Peanuts are first shelled and roasted in a machine before being held together with glistening syrup of molasses and water. For an added affect these candies are topped with wisps of grated coconut dyed pink, green and yellow.

Oilseed or dry fruit

In southern parts of India, peanut is consumed more as a dry fruit. Peanut candy has been a popular snack item for kids for long. Chocolate candy bars of today are no match to these peanut candies. Besides being sold as candies, other sweet variants are peanut ladoo, honey roasted peanuts, cookies, peanut butter (sweet and salted). Gajak, a traditional sweet of India, made during Lohri festival has popular version made using roasted peanuts. But in northern and western parts of India farmers sell it mainly for oil extraction.

Nutritional value

Peanuts are high in fibre, has many nutrients necessary for the human body, hence a healthy snack for growing children. Each 100g candy has protein, energy, carbohydrate and fat. On its own it has rich nutty flavour, sweet taste, and crunchy texture.

Mid-day meal (MDM), the freshly-cooked lunch, served to children in government and government-aided schools in India include fried peanuts in their menu.

It is listed in low cost immune booster food items. Lockdown period saw a high sale of groundnut oil, as this was the most popular oil consumed in many households of northern and western India.

Favourite of farmers

Given the unpredictability of weather in India, groundnuts prove to be the best bet for farmers. They are available throughout the year due to a two-crop cycle, harvested in March and October, thus it has the potential to generate income irrespective of weather conditions. Every part of groundnut plant is useful. After harvest, the green leafy part is used as fodder for farm animals. The shells are used decomposed and used as manure.