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Page 173 Nuñas (Popping Beans) Like most present day Latin Americans, the Incas and their ancestors depended on boiled beans (frijoles) for much of their nourishment. Many lived so high in the mountains, however, that they couldn't cook ordinary dry beans—water boils at too low a temperature up there. 1 To circumvent this, they used a remarkable bean known as the nuña. Nuñas (pronounced noon-yas) are a type of the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris); they are roughly the bean counterpart of popcorn. Heated with a little oil, nuñas burst out of their seed coats. The effect is less dramatic than popping popcorn—nuñas don't fly in the air; they open like small butterflies spreading their wings. 2 The resulting product is soft and tastes somewhat like roasted peanuts. Nuñas look much like common beans, but they are hard shelled. They come in many striking colors and patterns: white, red, and black-spotted, for instance. During cooking, the heat and moisture build up steam inside, and the hard hell and round shape mean that it can escape only by bursting out. From Ecuador to southern Peru, nuñas are grown above 2,500 m altitude. They are produced mainly for home consumption and are much more common in houses than in markets. Nonetheless, they are often sold as part of a mixture of beans to be incorporated into soups. That nuñas are unknown outside the Andes seems surprising. For industrialized nations, these popping beans could be a new and nutritious snack food. For developing nations, they could be a tasty source of high-quality protein. Toasting nuñas requires far less fuel than boiling beans, an important economic (and environmental) consideration in regions where fuel is scarce. In addition to having nutritional and energy-saving attributes, the plant is a nitrogen-fixing 1 Common beans can be cooked at high elevation; it simply takes a long time and a lot of fuel, which is usually difficult to come by in the treeless uplands. Even at low altitudes, some varieties take hours to cook properly. 2 Strictly speaking, they don't pop. They burst, and are more like toasted maize (cancha or chulpi), which is best known outside the Andes under the brand name “CornNuts.”
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Page 174 ~ enlarge ~ Nuñas are normally cooked like popcorn. The seed shown was heated with hot air and exploded to double its size in under 2 minutes. This seed had been collected in Peru and stored in Pullman, Washington, for more than 10 years. The fact that nuñas burst normally is an indication that popping may not be restricted to fresh seeds nor to high altitudes. (S.C. Spaeth) legume that benefits the soil in which it is grown and that is well suited to interplanting with other crops such as corn. Although they have real potential, these popping beans are probably unknown elsewhere because they apparently have daylength requirements that at present seem to restrict their cultivation to equatorial latitudes. Research to overcome this could give the world a large and fascinating new crop. PROSPECTS Andean Region. Nuña cultivation is already widespread from at least northern Ecuador to northern Bolivia, although distribution is discontinuous and in many places the plant is unfamiliar. With research and promotion, this bean is likely to be more widely adopted throughout the mountain region, as well as in the lowlands. It is already widely used by some urban mestizos, and in both highland towns and some coastal cities it sells at prices similar to those obtained for the most favored bean cultivars. 3 3 Nuñas are most often found in “serrano” (Andean Indian) markets, such as the Mercado Mayorista in Lima, that are frequented by Indians from the highlands.
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Page 175 Other Developing Areas. For many Third World areas, the nuña's greatest inherent quality is its relatively low requirements for cooking fuel—a critical consideration where deforestation is acute or kerosene expensive. This crop's close relationship to the common bean suggests that it could grow well and be readily adapted in regions far beyond its present range. So far, however, it seems best adapted to the montane tropics. Future research will likely give it broader adaptability. Industrialized Regions. Nuñas could be a new and nutritious snack food with potential for North America, Europe, Japan, and other industrialized areas. This situation is analogous to the discovery of popcorn or roasted peanuts by the modern world. This remains to be tested, however. Some crops from very high elevations—and nuñas may be one—are highly restricted in their adaptive range. Although there is a possibility that they require the high light intensity and, perhaps, the high altitude to retain their popping quality, this is probably not the case (see later). USES In the central and northern Andes of Peru, nuñas are prepared in traditional ways much like popcorn. They are toasted for 5–10 minutes in a hot frying pan, which is usually coated with vegetable oil or animal fat. 4 The seed coat splits in two or more places, often between the cotyledons. The toasted product is served at main meals as a side dish, is eaten as a snack, and—in southern Peru—is often sold to tourists. 5 NUTRITION Nutrient levels are high and similar to those of the common bean. The protein content is about 22 percent. 6 AGRONOMY Agronomic techniques are the same as for common beans. Because of its viny habit, the nuña plant in the Andes is almost always interplanted with corn so it can climb on the stalks. 4 They work well in microwave ovens, too. Information from L. Sumar. 5 For instance, nuñas are common at the Pachar and Ollantaytambo stops of the Machu Picchu tourist train. 6 Information from V. Ortiz.
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Page 176 Out-crossing contributes to a small gene flow, resulting in seeds with a gradient of “nuña-ness.” Because of this, the capacity to pop can range from 30 to 90 percent of a given batch. To prevent cross-pollination, nuñas are grown in different parts of the field from common dry beans and string beans. HARVESTING AND HANDLING In the highlands, harvests occur 5–9 months after planting. However, at 25°C mean temperature, nuñas mature in about 80 days. 7 Yields appear to be similar to those of other traditional varieties of common bean. LIMITATIONS There has been little modern genetic improvement of this crop. Its yields can be erratic and, when compared with other bean varieties, it is relatively susceptible to pests and diseases. 8 The presence of flatulence-producing factors could limit its acceptance. Severity, however, varies greatly with the strain, its preparation, and probably with the other foods with which it is eaten. RESEARCH NEEDS For a crop on which little recent research has been expended, almost everything about nuñas needs testing and assessment. 9 One basic need is ethnobotanical investigations of the plant's production and use in the Andes. Particular consideration should be given to its cultivation and agronomic characteristics, as well as to the ways in which it is prepared. In addition, research is needed to determine the plant's range and ecological requirements, and to identify and protect different types of available germplasm, much of which has been lost already. 7 Information from J. White. 8 The Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia, is now actively trying to introduce resistance to important diseases (such as bean common mosaic virus and anthracnose), a day-neutral photoperiod response, and a bush growth habit. Information from J. White. 9 In the 1950s and 1960s, a program at the Universidad Nacional Agraria, La Molina, Peru, collected nuñas extensively in the Peruvian highlands and subjected the different types to tests. Research reports of this program, which was later dropped, should be republished.
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Page 177 It is important to understand what controls the popping qualities. The unique properties that enable toasting are now unknown. They may include seed shape, inelastic seed coat, or the quality or quantity of stored starch. A test is needed that can determine whether a certain round bean is in fact a nuña. At the moment, there is no certain recognition, and developing such a test is necessary both for the national marketing of the crop and for understanding the genetic control of the nuña's intrinsic characteristics. A major step in promoting nuñas is obtaining basic information on the popped product. Analysis of nutrients and biochemistry of the NUÑAS IN THE UNITED STATES In the past, the few researchers who knew about nuñas were uncertain whether these popping beans could succeed outside the high Andes. They thought that the plant might grow only at high altitudes or equatorial latitudes. They also feared that the popping character of the beans might disappear even if the plant could be grown outside its equatorial highland home. In addition, some expressed the opinion that the capacity to pop might occur only in newly harvested and sun-dried seeds. Old nuñas, it is rumored in the Andes, will not pop. Now, however, it seems that these fears are unfounded. In 1978, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (to replenish germplasm in its seed bank) grew 14-year-old nuñas successfully in Pullman, Washington. The site is in the temperate zone at a high latitude (47°N) and low altitude (200 m). In 1988, Stephen C. Spaeth, a USDA researcher, tested some of the seeds and found that even after 10 years of storage (at 4°C) they had lost none of their popping characteristics—they showed good “nuña-ness” by exploding to double their size after only 90 seconds on a hot-air gun (see page 174). Indeed, these 10-year-old “temperate-grown” beans popped just as well as nuñas newly harvested in Colombia. Although the nuñas plant is now well known only in a relatively small region of the world, these results suggest that in future it may become a widely available, nutritious, tasty, and fuel-conserving food. Only its requirement for short daylength seems likely to initially limit its spread.
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Page 178 seeds is needed, including protein content, amino acid composition and nutritional availability, carbohydrate content and composition, fat content and fatty acid makeup, energy availability, and functional characteristics. Because of its radically different style of preparation from normal beans, it is important that the percentage of utilizable protein be assessed. (Antimetabolic factors may be less deactivated during a few minutes of toasting than in several hours of boiling, although, with the higher temperature, this seems improbable.) Collections of seed should be made at the southernmost limits of nuña cultivation, and trials to identify types adapted for long daylength should be set up. In addition, any other methods for circumventing daylength limitations should be investigated. 10 Successful trials are likely to be the key to unlocking the nuña's global potential. However, breeding for other traits is also needed because the plants are currently late-maturing, tall and weak, and susceptible to diseases such as anthracnose. SPECIES INFORMATION Botanical Name Phaseolus vulgaris Linnaeus Family Leguminosae (Fabaceae) Common Names Quechua: ñuñas (Cajamarca, La Libertad, Trujillo, Lima); numia (Huanuco), nambia (Ancash), nudia and hudia (Cuzco), kopuro (Bolivia); chuvi, poroto, purutu, porotillo Spanish: nuñas English: nuñas, popping beans, popbeans Origin. Observations of ancient beans discovered at the Guitarrero Cave in Ancash, Peru, indicate that nuñas may have been available 11,000 years ago. 11 Thus, nuñas existed well before the Incas, and perhaps before the common (frijol) type, itself. Because of their ancient beginnings, nuñas have been called “a kind of witness of the first steps of plant domestication.” Description. The morphology of the nuña plant is identical to that of the common bean. It is an indeterminate, climbing vine (2–3 m tall) that produces a large number of pods from abundant flowers that are primarily self-fertilized. Bush types may exist, but are unreported. Like the common bean, each pod contains 5–7 seeds. Most seeds 10 Work at CIAT has shown that photoperiod sensitivity may be overcome through use of 8-hour photoperiods. Information from J. White. 11 For further information, see Kaplan and Kaplan, 1988.
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Page 179 are nearly spherical (occasionally oval), and range between 0.5 and 0.9 cm in diameter. Different strains have diverse coloration—white, yellow, gray, blue, purple, red, brown, black, and mixed. Horticultural Strains. In the northern Peruvian Andes, where nuñas are almost a staple, the most common color forms marketed are gray and white speckled (nuña pava), light red (nuña mani), dark blue (nuña azul) and gray (nuña ploma). Within the vicinity of Cajabamba (near Cajamarca) and Huamachuco (La Libertad), there are scores of distinct types differing in seed size, shape, and color. Although there are no discernible differences in taste between different types of nuñas, there is variation in the capacity to “pop.” This quality is recognized by farmers and consumers: strains that pop the best are valued the most in the markets. The nuña pava (also called “coneja”) is held in particularly high regard. 12 There is a white nuña at Cajabamba called “huevo de paloma” (pigeon egg), which is outstanding in popping ability, taste, and crunchiness. In Cajabamba there is also a red and white mottled nufia called “parcollana.” 13 In the southern Andes of Peru, several strains of Phaseolus vulgaris appear to be closely related to the nuña. These are usually roasted (15–30 minutes) in either gypsum pebbles (pachas) or sand, rather than oil. They are called “poroto de Puno” and are found only in certain valleys, certain markets, and on special days. They do not pop, but the seed coat breaks open, and the shell comes off to leave a very dry, but tasty, product. Environmental Requirements 14 Daylength. As noted, certain nuña types are highly photoperiod sensitive. This sensitivity increases with growing temperature. Rainfall. 500–1,300 mm throughout the growing season. Altitude. 1,800–3,000 m in Peru Low Temperature. 2–5°C; frost susceptible High Temperature. About 25°C; may be intolerant of even moderately hot conditions. Soil Type. As with modern beans. Nitrogen-fixing is more effective in light, well-drained soils because of better Rhizobium growth. 12 The center of production of this nuña is the Citacocha district of southern Cajamarca. 13 Information from J. Risi. 14 Nuñas have seldom been grown outside the central Andes, and the outer limits of the plant's environmental requirements are unknown. The figures here are, therefore, indicative, but not definitive.
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