Sat, Jul 23, 2016 - Page 13 News List

Ian’s Table: The whole nine yards

Yardlong beans grow well in the heat and humidity of Taiwan and are an integral part of many Asian dishes

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Roasted aubergine, cherry tomato and yardlong bean pasta is quick to make and gives you a hefty vegetable intake.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Yardlong beans are not quite what their name suggests, the name being something of an exaggeration, in the best tradition of the costermonger’s art. The scientific name for this long bean is Vigna unguiculata subsp. Sesquipedalis, in which “Sesquipedalis” is Latin for one-and-a-half feet, provides a reasonably accurate indication of the bean’s length.

Also called Chinese long beans, snake beans, garter beans and asparagus beans, yardlong beans have a wide range of uses in Asian cooking, and while their texture is quite different from the common bean used in Western cuisine, they are much more robust in a subtropical or tropical climate, and are worth exploring for their potential in dishes not establish as part of the regional cuisine. In Southeast Asia they are often cut into small sections and stir-fried with a spicy sauce, a chili and shrimp paste mix in Malaysia, ginger and basil in Thailand, both personal favorites, and more than probably any number of other permutations around the region.

It is tempting to think of yardlong beans as just an Asian variety of common green bean, not least because of their name, and the fact that in some preparations they have a similar taste, but a totally different texture. In fact they are in a different genus from the common bean, and their distinctive nature makes itself known as soon as you try to boil or steam yardlong beans. Green beans taste lovely straight from the steamer, but yardlong beans will often end up waterlogged and mushy.

In all of the preparations I know of, yardlong beans require cooking with oil; sauteed, stir-fried, or deep-fried, their flavor intensifies and their texture remains tight and juicy. Even when these beans are added to rich Thai curries, they should generally be fried before going into the liquid.

The relative ease of growing yardlong beans means they are popular with small growers and there is a good chance of getting them from market farmers selling their day’s harvest at traditional markets. The beans should be used quickly, and while they are always a bit floppy, which is fine and doesn’t affect their excellent texture, they go limp quite quickly, feeling flabby to the touch and mealy in the mouth.

The fact that yardlong beans are well adapted to the heat and humidity of Taiwan means that they are a great substitute for green beans, which go under the name of “four season beans” (四季豆) in Chinese. These beans have many outstanding qualities, and they are indeed available throughout the year, though they are notorious for their high level of pesticide use. An Apple Daily article from Jan. 22 reported pesticide residue of up to 69 times the legal limit on green beans based on an evaluation report published by Greenpeace on pesticide residue on supermarket vegetables in Taiwan.

Green beans were a major culprit, which is hardly surprising given that their natural growing season (read: organic) in subtropical Taiwan is actually quite short. Certainly they can’t be used everywhere that green beans can, and they are a bit more rough and rugged in appearance, both raw and cooked. But they are now easily available from small farmers who while probably not totally organic, don’t tend to use chemicals with the abandon of the big producers.

One of the big health claims made for yardlong beans is that they are very low in calories, but given that they are best prepared using generous amounts of oil, calorie counters are probably not going to get much benefit from this. Dietary fiber is another big part of these beans, making them good for keeping the intestines ticking over in proper fashion. They are a good source of Vitamins C and A, and also the much lauded B-12, which plays a key role in the proper function of the immune system.

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