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Our Daily Spread : Peanut Butter: A Stirring Tale : World Affairs: Chunky or smooth, peanut butter is loved around the globe.

March 10, 1994|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pity the peanut. It's not a pea and it's not really a nut. Even so, most people around the world insist on treating it as one or the other. They roast it (here and there--in China, parts of Africa and the American South) or they boil it.

When it's ground fine enough, though, this oil-rich cousin of the fava bean shows its real potential. Our national taste for peanut butter (See "E Pluribus Chunky," H10) has made it a basic element in American cookie-, candy- and cake-making. In Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Africa, ground peanuts show up in sauces and stews.

The peanut is a South American original, a shrub whose flowers send tendrils into the ground where they grow into seed pods. It was domesticated about 4,000 years ago in the eastern foothills of the Andes, somewhere around the border between Bolivia and Argentina. And very thoroughly domesticated; it's one of the few plants in the world that is never found in the wild. By the time of Columbus, it had spread throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Ground peanuts enter into cooking throughout this area today. In Peru, rich peanut butter-based sauces cover aji de gallina (a peppery chicken dish), papas arequipena (potatoes in peanut sauce) and carapulcra (ditto, with Andean freeze-dried potatoes). In Ecuador, cheesy fried potato patties ( llapingachos ) come in spicy peanut sauce. Bolivian cooks make a chicken soup with peanut dumplings, sopa de mani.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 17, 1994 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Column 3 Food Desk 4 inches; 108 words Type of Material: Correction; Recipe
Cookies--The recipe for Mayi Brady's Peanut Butter Cookies in last week's Food Section should have read as follows:
MAYI'S PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES 1 cup butter, softened 1 1/2 cups chunky peanut butter 1 cup granulated sugar 1 cup light-brown sugar, packed 2 eggs 2 cups flour 1 teaspoon baking soda
In bowl cream butter with peanut butter. Add granulated and brown sugars and beat until fluffy. Add eggs and beat. Mix in flour and baking soda.
Drop by rounded tablespoons onto greased baking sheet. Flatten slightly with palm of hand. Bake at 350 degrees until light golden brown, about 15 minutes. Makes about 30 (3-inch) cookies.
Each cookie contains about: 193 calories; 70 mg sodium; 31 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.33 gram fiber.

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And so on. The Brazilian dish peixe com molho de amendoim is fish simmered with peanut butter, spices and chiles. Mexico puts ground peanuts into certain moles and in stews with names like pollo encacahuetado. In the Caribbean, they stew rabbits with peanut sauce. To say nothing about the many Latin American sweets made with peanuts, or the Caribbean peanut milk cocktail.

Europeans first came across the peanut in Haiti, where the Taino people called it mani (the Portuguese word amendoim comes from a related Brazilian language). Mani became the word for peanut in Colonial Spanish, and that's why Bolivians call it by a name imported from Haiti, even when they're descended from the people who domesticated the plant in the first place.

During the 16th Century the Spanish took the peanut to the Philippines, where it is still called mani. In most of eastern Asia, however, it was the Chinese who spread it. The peanut is known as "Chinese bean" in Japan and Indonesia, and as far away as India, to the Bengalis it's chinabadam , "Chinese almond."

The peanut was a big hit in Asia (today 85% of the world's peanuts are grown in Asia and Africa), but in large chunks of that continent the peanut rarely, if ever, winds up as peanut butter. The Chinese boil peanuts plain or toss them into stir-fries, but to China the peanut is primarily an oil seed. In fact, Chinese cookery is hard to imagine without the flavor of frying peanut oil, which is why China is the largest peanut grower in the world today. But Chinese peanut butter? Not that you'd notice.

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India also raises peanuts primarily for oil, though the southern part of the country has more interest in them for their own sake. Whole or chopped peanuts show up in pilafs, salads and tamarind-based sauces in South India. Ground peanuts do play a role in Indian snack foods, though.

For anything like a peanut butter cuisine, you have to stop halfway between India and China, in Indonesia. One of the most famous Indonesian dishes is satay, little skewers of grilled meat served with mildly spicy sweet-sour sauces made with peanut butter, chiles, coconut milk and fish sauce. Satay has spread around Southeast Asia as far as Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India. In Indonesia there's even a salad ( gado-gado ) with a rich satay-style peanut sauce.

Southern Thailand has peanut butter dishes of its own, such as pra ram long song (beef and spinach stewed in something rather like a satay sauce) and gai thua (chicken in a peanut butter and coconut milk curry). But the farther you get from Indonesia, the smaller the role peanuts play. In places like Cambodia and Burma, they go back to the same sort of role they play in China, getting chopped up and tossed into soup or salad.

It was in Africa that the peanut found its heartiest welcome. The Portuguese brought it to West Africa in the early 1500s, and in 1564 the traveler Alvares de Almada reported it was already an established crop in Senegal and Gambia (which are still among the world's greatest peanut-exporting countries). Within 200 years it had spread on its own all the way across Africa to Angola, without Portuguese help.

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