Slow Stories

by Cat Wheeler

Wing Beans, the One-Stalk Supermarket

Wing Beans, the One-Stalk Supermarket

Meet the humble wing or winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), a traditional vegetable that’s been around for millenia. You’ve probably never heard of it, but this neglected legume is about to experience a resurgence in recognition and profile. Slow Food Bali has adopted it as a project with the intention of encouraging commercial cultivation. The wing bean could ultimately replace imported soybeans in the manufacture of tempe and tofu in Indonesia, as well as providing a healthy and easily cultivated source of protein in many other dishes across the archipelago.

The wing bean has been called the ‘one-stalk supermarket’ or ‘God-given plant’ because practically all of the plant is edible and nutritious. The beans are used as a vegetable but the other parts (leaves, flowers and tuberous roots) can also be eaten. The tender pods, which have a flavour similar to asparagus, can be harvested within two or three months of planting. The pale blue flowers are used to color rice and pastries. The young leaves can be picked and prepared as a leaf vegetable, similar to spinach. The roots, which have a nutty flavour, can be used like a potato and are much higher in protein. The dried beans are similar to soybeans in both use and nutritional content and can be used as a flour or made into milk, tempe or tofu.

WB on vineIn fact anything a soy bean can do, a wing bean can do better. It’s a climbing plant, so takes less land to produce the same harvest. It prefers to grow in the humid tropics. Every part of the wing bean is nutritious: the pods at 12% protein, seeds over 30%, leaves and flowers 5% and tubers as high as 30%. Wing beans have the highest calcium content among all legumes and are also an excellent source of minerals, vitamins (especially A and C), iron and enzymes. Yet only in Burma are wing beans grown commercially. In the rest of Asia they are a casual, back-yard crop. Yields can reach 5 tons/hectare for beans with green pods, dry seed and tubers. Soybean harvests in Indonesia average between one and two tons/hectare.
About 70 % of the two million tons of soybeans used by Indonesian tempeh and tofu producers every year are imported, mostly from the United States and Brazil. In the first half of 2010, Indonesia imported soy beans worth over US$346 million from the United States alone.

Slow Food Bali is sponsoring Balinese farmers to grow seed stock for research and eventual production. Ideally, this will become a sustainable livelihoods project, with local women making tempe in their villages for sale to their neighbors. This meets SFB’s goal of connecting the grower with the consumer, preserving artisanal food traditions, helping develop food products that profile Bali, promoting a more local diet and in delivering nutritional education to the community.

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