Beans – A History by Ken Albala – review

I was expecting a pamphlet. What is there to say about beans? Well, lots and it’s much more interesting than I had supposed.

Beans a historyThe author, Ken Albala, already has a good track record for writing food-related books. His others include Eating Right in the Renaissance and The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe. This book, however, concentrates on the food of the poor, food of desperation and famine.

Raymond Blanc says of this book: “A vividly entertaining history of the humble bean takes the reader on a curious, surprising ad exciting journey across epochs, continents and cultures.” Couldn’t put it better myself!

This isn’t a recipe book although it does have several dozen, mostly historic, recipes, or rather instructions on how to cook all kinds of beans; it’s more a book that tells you everything you would ever need to know about the subject. Ken includes a chapter on “Oddballs and Villains”. These are some nasties that are actually poisonous and have been revived, to a small extent, by the Slow Food enthusiasts in Umbria who insist that it is a traditional foodstuff in danger of disappearance!

I had never thought of lupins as beans until I came across them in Madeira a few years ago. I might not have even tried them if I had known that, in their raw state, they can kill you. It takes lots of washing to remove the toxin and some of the bitter taste. I think the ones I had needed a bit more washing!

Mexican Refried Beans are delicious and easy to make. Ken gives us directions for making these. It’s not a recipe but a method. The same goes for Khichri which was the forerunner of the Anglo-Indian Kedgeree. The traditional version was rice, mung beans and spices and was a popular evening meal.

As a kid I loved baked beans. As an adult and a passionate cook I thought that it wasn’t a food I should admit to enjoying. These days I tuck into my beans on toast knowing they are quite good for me, quick, easy and comforting. Beans – A History persuades me that I am just continuing a long tradition. It’s an informative and amusing book.

Beans – A History
Author: Ken Albala
Published by: Berg
Price: £14.99
ISBN 978 1 84520 430 3


Cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018


See more books by Ken Albala here