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Pacay (Ice-Cream Beans)

All legumes have their seeds encased in pods, and a few of these pods are widely eaten as vegetables—green beans and snow peas, for example. A few lesser known legumes produce pods containing a sweet, mealy pulp and are eaten as fruits. Carob, tamarind, and honey locust are the best known.1 However, trees of the genus Inga also produce sweet pods. They deserve much greater recognition and could become widely known and enjoyed.

For people in Central and South America, inga pods have long been favorite snacks. The pods are mostly narrow, straight, and in some species as long as a person's forearm. They are easily cracked open to expose the white, sugar-rich pulp—reminiscent of cotton candy—surrounding the seeds. In English they have been called “ice-cream beans” because this white pulp has a sweet flavor and smooth texture.

Most Inga species occur in the lowland tropics of the Americas, but several occur in the upland Andes. The main Andean one is Inga feuillei (pronounced “few-i-lee”). It is widely grown in highland valleys as well as in coastal lowlands of Peru and Ecuador where it is often employed as a shade tree or street tree. Its pods, prized as snacks, are found in markets and on street vendors' carts and are often consumed by children.

Most commonly called “pacay” and “guama,”2 this particular inga has long been popular. Its pods are depicted in ancient ceramics. The Incas had pacay pods carried to their mountain capital of Cuzco. Pedro Pizarro reports that the Inca emperor Atahualpa sent to Francisco Pizarro a basketful of guamas as a gift.

It is surprising that this plant (as well as other Inga species3 ) is not

1 See National Research Council, 1979.
2 Pacay (pacae) is a Quechua word used in Spanish specifically for the upland Andes species. “Guama” or “guaba” are names widely used for any Inga species whose pods have sweet pulp.
3 Most Inga species are tropical lowland species unknown in the Andes. Inga edulis is considered the best species for shade in coffee plantations in Colombia; I. vera is common in Central America. (I. vera and related species are covered in the companion report, Firewood Crops Volume I. National Research Council. 1980. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.)

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