Rajma: How Mexican Kidney Beans Came To India

Food today is more than a mere irreplaceable means of sustenance: it has in modern times become a phenomenon, an essential component of body, mind, and soul. It is a luxurious topic for art, culture, and science. It is, in all its global and globally recognized diversity, a unifying factor for palates of diverse backgrounds; and with the topic hot on all platforms of communication, it is now also a common coffee-table discussion point. We sometimes take for granted how far we have come in the twenty-first century that we can so easily procure any ingredient, follow any recipe, dine on any cuisine, and share our own experiences, opinions, and ideas; all of this from within the comfort of our homes!  

One instance that perhaps captures the essence of that is the journey of Mexican beans. "What are those?" an Indian might ask. Say rajma and they will immediately conjure the image of that favorite dish taking pride of place at home during a family dinner, as a bachelor's snack, a weddings' buffet meal, a gourmet luncheon, and, Indians will collectively proudly admit, as off-hour steals from the refrigerator!   

These plump beans were originally, and still are to this day, grown in Mexico and Guatemala. They caught the fancy of the Spanish and Portuguese traders, who introduced them to other parts of the world, including Africa and Asia. They were an instant hit with the English in Europe. Soon after, the protein-rich bean was introduced to south-western India, but it was in north India that it was renamed, gained fame, and piqued the locals' interest. Today, the kidney bean has traveled far and wide and has been adopted as a staple food in many cultures. In order to meet the global demand, countries including Brazil, India, the United States, and China produce these beans on an industrial scale.

Most people will not relate the name "Mexican beans" to the kidney bean type of legume that has now become a favorite of most Indians. Rajma-chawal, or kidney bean gravy with basmati rice, is always a winner, wherever and whenever it is served. A hot favorite amongst Punjabi and other North Indian communities, this bean has now made its way into traditional South Indian homes too, in interesting avatars. Rajma chawal is the first thing that mothers teach their children when they are venturing out to live independently, either as students or as young adults holding jobs in metros. A pot of Rajma can keep hungry youth satisfied for longer than the ubiquitous egg omelet, egg burji, and other quick rustle-up meals. Rice, rotis, flat breads, dosas, or anything else can be used to soak up the yummy gravy. The gravies can be onion-based, steeped in curd, roasted coconut-based masalas, or sambhar. Rajma adapts itself magnanimously to every accompaniment.

Other ways to include this bean in a meal include salads, soups, burritos, chaats, paratha, dals (Dal makhani, Dhabey ki dal, Maa ki dal), dhokla, hummus, sandwiches, toppings on pizzas, nachos and pastas - the list goes on, as long as we have daring chefs and adventurous foodies.   

Another method of using this bean, is by incorporating a Mexican twist and using rajma instead of the white baked bean variety often used. Moyettes, tostadas, tacos, fajitas, pita pockets, and quesadillas—when prepared with rajma, they have the added benefits of being lower in glycemic index, higher in fiber, protein, and energy content.  

What is all the hubbub about a simple bean, one may wonder? The plump beans, which come in a variety of sizes and colors, are harvested after all bean seeds have been harvested and the bean pods are mature, but some farmers forgot to harvest tender green beans from their fields in time. They are a universal ingredient, highly nutritious, and a great source of plant-based proteins, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.  

When talking about beans, one of the most popular and globally recognized varieties is the kidney bean, named after its resemblance to a human kidney. There are many varieties of kidney bean, however, the red kidney bean, or Rajma, is the one we Indians will be most familiar with.  

Although Rajma came to India from distant lands, today it rules the hearts, stomachs, and kitchens of all Indians with aplomb. Dare anyone say Rajma isn't Indian and you may have affronted housewives to contend with. Who cares about origins anymore...It's what we make of them that matters.