Where are the peanuts?

"In a high-pressure environment, peanut butter can be turned into diamonds" National Peanut Board (US)

Well I'm not sure whether that statement at the top of the page is true or not, but peanuts - raw peanuts that is - might as well be diamonds at the moment, because in spite of both Woolworths and Coles online saying they have some unsalted peanuts (not quite the same thing but they would do), I could not find any the last time I visited. Nor in Aldi. And there was not a lot of peanut oil either. I don't know about the peanut butter as I don't use it a lot.


Why was a I looking anyway? Well a week or so ago I fancied making this dish from Charmaine Solomon called Chilli chicken with noodles from her Thai Cookbook. It's a favourite dish of mine that I make from time to time - on a regular basis anyway, and the thing that really makes it is the topping of peanuts chilli and dried garlic flakes. Alas there is no online version so I shall give you the recipe here. She specifies using red curry paste and I generally make her own, and you can find a copy of it here. But you can of course find some in the supermarket.


Don't be put off by either the ingredients or the fact that it looks like a long recipe. This is just so simple and so delicious. In spite of the chilli I can actually get David to eat and like this. Sometimes I add a green vegetable such as sliced beans or broccolini, or even the dreaded celery to this. Or you could use pork instead, maybe even beef, or just use vegetables.


CHILLI CHICKEN WITH NOODLES

250g boneless chicken, 4 tablespoons peanut oil, 2 dried red chillies, 1 tablespoon dried garlic flakes, 1/2 cup peanuts, 1 tablespoon red curry paste, 1/4 cup water, 2 tablespoons chilli sauce (optional), 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 220g rice noodles, cooked and drained, 2 tablespoons lime juice, 1/2 cup sliced spring onions, 1/2 cup chopped fresh coriander.


Remove the skin and excess fat from the chicken and cut the meat into strips. Heat the oil, fry the dried chillies on medium heat until they are puffed up and blackened, then remove to absorbent paper. Fry the garlic flakes on low heat for just a few seconds, Lift them out on a large wire strainer as soon as they turn pale golden, as they will continue to cook in their own heat. Drain. Add the peanuts and stir constantly while frying until they are light brown. Lift out and allow to cool on absorbent paper.


Remove the stalks from the chillies, shake out the seeds and chop the chillies into small pieces, Crush the garlic flakes and peanuts. Mix all three together for sprinkling over the dish at the end. (I confess I just whizz them all a bit in a food processor.)


If necessary, add an extra tablespoon of oil to the wok and fry the red curry paste, stirring, for a couple of minutes. Add the chicken and stir-fry on medium-high heat until the colour changes, 1 minute. then add the noodles, lime juice and spring onions, and toss over and over in the spicy mixture until heated through. Sprinkle with the peanut mixture and fresh coriander. Extra fish sauce and lime juice mixed with sliced hot chillies may accompany the noodles for real chilli devotees.


Needless to say I do not do that last step.


But back to the peanuts. As I said, I could not find any in the three supermarkets and so I abandoned that idea for now. Raw peanuts are up on my blackboard shopping list though - along with the szechuan peppercorns which I also cannot find.


Well it seems that there is a real shortage of peanuts in the country at the moment because of the Queensland drought that has meant that only 10% of the normal crop has been able to be harvested. That's a really big drop in production. Bear in mind that most of these peanuts go into peanut butter, then oil and salted peanuts, so the raw peanuts are probably at the bottom of the priority list.


Normally each peanut plant produces 25-30 peanuts. This year, as this picture shows they are producing a mere 5 or 6. If anything at all. I gather that we do normally also import peanuts - mostly from Argentina and Nicaragua, but I imagine there might be problems with that too under the current COVID 19 circumstances.


Asia is now the leading producer of peanuts - mostly China of course - but the USA also produces vast quantities. But then the USA probably consumes most of them. I think Argentina is next on the list, and western Africa also contributes to world production.


Where do peanuts come from originally? Well South America - so they were not known in Europe and Asia before the conquistadores. The earliest known cultivation of peanuts was in Peru some 7,600 years ago, but it's only a few hundred years since the rest of the world has known about them. Well those West Africans had something very similar, but early Europe would not have known of them - not even the Arabs.


Here in Australia, Queensland is the centre of the peanut growing industry and Kingaroy is the peanut capital. They are also grown in northern NSW and the NT with a few in WA and South Australia, but not much. Queensland is the place.


Peanuts, are not, in fact a nut. They are technically a drupe, which is a kind of seed and a legume. They grow underground. As a legume they are brilliant for crop rotation because they put nutrients such as nitrogen back into the soil. The GRDC - Grains Research and Development Corporation, has a very informative and beautifully produced page on peanuts. My eyes often glaze over when people start listing the nutritive benefits of various plants, but the GRDC does it so clearly and distinctively that I am just going to reproduce it here.


"Peanuts have high fibre content and a low glycemic index, one of the lowest of all foods. Peanuts are:

  • cholesterol-free

  • very low in saturated fat

  • rich in vitamin E, thiamine, niacin, folic acid, vitamin K

  • a good source of vitamin B6, biotin and pantothenic acid

  • a low-sodium food (unsalted peanuts)"

And in addition they are 26% protein. So to my relatively uneducated eyes a bit of a superfood really. Plus PCA now produces a new hybrid called HI-Oleic peanuts. It was developed in America and is now being planted everywhere in Queensland because it is higher in monounsaturated fats, and therefore healthier still.


I gather they have now had a bit of rain up there in Queensland so things are looking a bit better. Let's hope so.


I also found a few interesting things from a commerce point of view about peanut butter.


Peanuts were first grown in Australia by the Chinese who came over at the time of the Queensland gold rush, but it was not until the early 20th century that they began to be farmed on a commercial scale. Nowadays the primary processor of peanuts in Queensland is PCA - Peanut Company of Australia, which used to be the Peanut Marketing Board and which is now owned by Bega. Bega had a legal stoush with Kraft/Heinz over their packaging when they took over PCA but eventually Bega won. I think Kraft/Heinz is appealing. I must say I wonder why this is such a big thing, when Aldi, as we all know, steers very close to the wind with some of its packaging. I also saw somewhere that Kraft/Heinz has withdrawn its peanut butter from the supermarket shelves, but I cannot now find that reference.


There have also been arguments with Woolworths who removed an Australian brand - Farmers Co. from its shelves, saying that sales were not sufficient. And doubtless their statistics showed this. Nevertheless there was protest. The Bega brand though is 100% Australian and there are other Australian brands too.


We eat a lot of peanuts in one form or another so a shortage is definitely a problem, and it does look like I won't be eating my favourite chicken noodle dish anytime soon.

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