For well over a decade, we were stymied by the genus Vigna, our efforts figuring as one of the farm's major nonprofit endeavors. The best we could achieve was parity, a ratio of one pound sown to one pound harvested, and we were almost celebratory about that pathetic achievement, seeing it as a hopeful sign. Most efforts failed even this slight measure of hope.
The adzuki in the field.
Indigenous to tropical Africa and Asia, this genus of legumes has a complex of vernacular names, including field peas, cow peas, chickpeas, southern peas, mung, dal, gram and adzuki. They have a distinct gamy flavor relative to the garden beans. They were also one of the original "beans," along with the fava, of southern Europe—a character in Annibale Carracci's classic 'Mangiafagioli' (~1585) was tucking into a bowl of black-eyed peas, not the American garden beans we associate with Italians today.
Many plants have highly sensitive biochemical chronometers which trigger various functions such as growth, dormancy and flowering according to the dark period of the day. Plants with this requirement are called photoperiodic, and field peas possess that characteristic. In some crops agricultural cultivars have been selected for a very tight photoperiod. For example, onions and cabbage are not useful if they go to flower, or bolt, willy nilly. In Oregon, crops adapted to southern latitudes do not set flower until the nights lengthen in August or September, and there is not enough time to set and ripen their fruits. This is why okra, limas and field peas are not successful at this latitude, and as yet have no commercial cultivars suitable for Oregon. We have wasted a great deal of time and treasure on all three; hope springs eternal.
Experimenting with other crops gave us an appreciation of the challenges farming at the 45th parallel. One of the fascinating entries in the Tokyo Foundation is about Longfellow flint corn originating in New England that is grown on the island of Hokkaido. The northern part of the island lies on the 45th, which is why that variety grew well. We realized we needed to understand the crops of the island better, and that led to our Hokkaido Project. Both soy and adzukis are grown on Hokkaido, so we started trying varieties from the prefecture. Adzukis are the one Vigna, or field pea, that has commercial potential here in Oregon. We are also working on two traditional soy varieties, more on that later.
Fresh adzuki ready for market.
Initially, adzukis didn't sell well. We had licked the biology only to confront a marketing challenge. Despite the hesitant reaction, four customers gave us the spine to plant more. Mio Asaka (Mio's Delectables) and Naoko Tamura (Chef Naoko) used them in a traditional Japanese way as red bean paste. Last winter, David Sapp of Park Kitchen asked us if we could suggest one of our beans as a substitute for black-eyed peas in Hoppin' John. A light bulb lit up and we suggested using the adzukis. We warned him they are different, but of a kind, whereas the other beans we grow are definitely not of that kind. He was happy with the result, and encouraged us to plant more. Sarah Minnick was the other person who brought them into her kitchen with a variation on their traditional use in sweets; at Lovely's 50/50 they ended up ice cream.
A couple of weeks ago we got the idea that perhaps adzukis would be tasty as fresh shelled beans. We asked people who might know and poked about a bit online, but no one seems to share our idea. Then again, no one had ever suggested grinding popcorn and cooking it for polenta, or steeping it in slack lime for hominy, so there is no harm in trying an unshared notion. Bear in mind there are a host of ideas that have been discretely buried and forgotten in the Ayers Creek compost pile as well. As it turns out, fresh shelled adzukis make a tasty dish, just like one of the southern peas. Not quite the perfection of a Lady pea, but up there with next tier field peas. We will have some at market this week, a one-time event, and then you all will have to wait for the dried adzukis.