Arachis hypogaea- m krishnan
IN most parts of peninsular India, the groundnut farmer heaves a long sigh of relief when the rains arrive in July and sleeps soundly at night. I circumscribe the terrain of his satisfaction because it is unwise to commit oneself to statements on the versatile groundnut; it is sometimes sown much later in the year, especially in the South, where it is commonest. But in most light, monsoon-fed soils where it is a main crop, and not a rotation crop with cotton, the seed is put down in May or June and by mid-July, if the rains are punctual, the seedlings are up and spreading across the brown earth in little clumps of green.
That is when the farmer heaves his sigh, for now he need only guard the crop by day, against cattle — more against errant hooves than greedy mouths, for though dry groundnut foliage is valued as cattle fodder, the beasts care little for the young, bitter leaf and a thorn fence will keep them out. But till the monsoon comes and the crop is up, the farmer must watch his field every night, to keep away wild pig, which know just when he sows and where the buried treasure lies. Of course, it is not only the pigs that bother his nights; the prospect of delayed rains worries him no less. I don’t suppose his sown seed will take any harm from the monsoon being late by a few days, but the sooner they start sprouting, the sooner the crop will mature, and, if this is held up till the downpours of late November, he may lose much. Heavy showers can ruin the ripe crop.
This is no dissertation on the varieties of groundnut and the history of its cultivation, but it is a curious fact that the plant, a native of South America, came here by a devious route only some 120 years ago. And for nearly half a century India has been the chief groundnut growing country in the world. To no other exotic food crop have the people of the country taken so wholeheartedly. Throughout peninsular India, wherever it is not wet enough to grow rice, groundnut is not only a prime commercial crop but also an important part of the people&’s diet.
Four standard books on Indian agriculture that I consulted list the groundnut as an oilseed and comment on the uses of the oil in cookery, in soap manufacture, in lubrication and as a possible fuel — even the high protein value of the residual cake and its merit as cattle feed and manure is mentioned, but there is not a word in any of these books about groundnut being so often, in city and in village, the poor man&’s snack and the snack of the not-so-poor, or how excellent and nutritive it is.
Groundnut thrives on poor soils and with hardly any manuring, the bacterial modules on its roots helping to provide its own supply of nitrogenous substances — it is like other leguminous plants in this and its merit as a rotation crop lies in this. In light soils, the harvesting is a ridiculously simple process; the plants are pulled up and the pods come out with the shallow roots. For this reason, it is sometimes said that groundnut is an easy crop and a lazy man&’s crop. A 10-year sojourn in a groundnut area has left me with very different impressions.
When the plants are fully grown, dark yellow flowers with showy, papillonate corollas appear on the lateral branches. The groundnut flowers like any other plant, but as soon as they open the flowers start pushing them down into the earth — this subterranean bias of the fertilised flower is a marked peculiarity of the plant and the pods will not develop unless so buried. By the end of September, the crop sown in June will have flowered and fruited, and in October or early in November, the pods will be fully matured. The maturing process is quick. The inside of the pods is white and pulpy, like wet pith, and the seeds are small and thin — a fortnight later the pod has a thin, dry coat and the seeds are fully formed and oily. However, not all the pods mature together and so a certain quantity of immature pods cannot be avoided at the harvest.
Pigs love the young groundnut, and so do I. For almost a mouth before the harvest, the farmer has to sit up every night in a machan built in the middle of his field to guard against nocturnal pigs — though he is safe from me and men with like tastes, for we are diurnal visitors to his crop. He shouts and waves his hurricane lantern about when he suspects that pigs are near, and he shouts and waves the lantern at intervals, even when he suspects nothing in a prophylactic manner. The nights are loud with the howls of groundnut watchers in such places, and the crop is the prize of continuous, unrelaxed vigilance, sore throats and the expenditure of much kerosene. But though this great effort can and does ward off serious damage by the pigs, it is unavailing against the rain. Downpours when the crop is ripe can still be the farmer&’s undoing. Groundnut is no easy crop to grow, believe me.
However, it is grown, thank heaven, literally. I remember reading a passage by Thoreau on the sufficient joy of being alive in a world where one can have cobs of corn, boiled in brine, to eat. I have often thought how right he was and undoubtedly tender, boiled maize is creamy and delicious, but I am sure Thoreau could have achieved a more ecstatic passage had he known tender, boiled groundnut. You choose pods almost fully formed (but not quite), wash them well and boil them in salted water, and then eat the creamy richness within them, pod by pod.
The fully formed nuts should always be eaten with jaggery, to condone their tendency to promote billiousness. I don’t know how jaggery does this; I only know it does. Science will, no doubt, discover the reason analytically and afterwards, as it has the soundness behind so many dietetic habits of the country. Mature groundnut is probably tastiest when baked in an earthen pot, when its crunchy, nutty flavour is brought out, but taste is not everything in the pleasure of repast. The best way to eat groundnut is to eat it roasted, on the field where it grew.
You go out in the evening with a companion or two and walk purposefully on till you reach a chosen groundnut field, with the cultivator in the middle inspecting his crop. Having found him, your step and approach become suddenly casual. You discuss the weather with him and the prospects of the jowar harvest yet to come; you hold forth on bullocks and fodder grass and the quaint habits of those who cultivate rice. Presently he invites you to sample his crop and you accept the invitation, still casually. Then he pulls out a big armful of groundnut plants, puts them down on a bare patch of earth and heaps handfuls of the dry leaves and twigs over the pods. He starts the fire and the blue, acrid smoke rises from the crackling heap; from time to time he pokes the heap with a stick to turn the nuts, or adds another handful of dry leaf.
The fire is then allowed to die down and you sit in a circle around the smouldering heap. Regretfully, your host remarks how much nicer the nut would taste if only he had jaggery to offer with it — it is then that one of the groundnut-eaters produces a large lump of jaggery from his clothes with no trace of embarrassment. The charred pods are raked out with a stick, split and the nuts eaten while they are still almost too hot to handle or eat. There is no affectation of casualness any more, no longer any small talk. You just fall to and gorge yourself.
When it is all over, you do not thank your host formally, for it is not such things but a sincere compliment to his crop that he will appreciate most. You tell him ruefully how you had clean forgotten your digestive limitations in your zest for such truly fine groundnut, and add that you will have to think up some good excuse on the way home to explain to the wife your marked “no-enthusiasm” for dinner — for some reason (which is beyond me) I have found this last remark never fails to amuse a groundnut farmer. You take leave of your host after praising his crop again, and walk away, ostensibly homeward bound and thinking up excuses. However, you make no direct tracks homewards. One of your companions still has a lump of jaggery with him and there is plenty of daylight still; a mile away there is another field where the groundnut crop looked exceedingly promising, the last time you passed that way. You walk purposefully towards it.
This was first published on 25 July 1954 in The Sunday Statesman