African honey beans

A couple of years ago, we ran into some friends at the Festival of Nations.  They had already eaten, so we asked if they had any favorites, and they quickly recommended the African honey beans from the Nigerian food stand.

We took their suggestion, thoroughly enjoyed our honey beans, and started counting down the days until the next year’s festival so we could get our fix.  In the meantime, of course, we played with the idea of making our own, but neither of our go-to international grocers (Jay’s and Global) carried the beans, a variety of black eyed peas that are inherently sweet.

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Gabriel’s first taste of honey beans — yum!

This year, we visited the Nigerian stand again and asked the proprietor where we could purchase the dried beans.  She directed us to Worldwide International Foods and African Grocery, a small store on Olive (just east of I-170) in UCity.  The store in question is decidedly outside our normal walkable/bikeable radius, and it’s also not an area we frequent in the car (unlike the suburbs where my in-laws live and the TJ’s/WF shopping area).

Anyway, I attempted a bean pick-up back in early November, when I visited a friend who lived not too far away, but they weren’t open.  Still no honey beans.

They fell of my radar until then I saw the article on honey beans in last month’s Sauce Magazine.  Interest renewed.  I wrote down the store address, called to check the hours, and jotted down the Yoruban name for the beans, “ewa oloyin,” in case that would make my quest easier.

Yesterday, with plans to look at a few houses just off of Olive, I made a second attempt, this time successful (well, sort-of).  They were down to two bags of “oloyin” on the shelf, a two-pounder and a ten-pounder.  We eat a lot of beans, and it had taken me FOREVER to actually get to the store and buy the beans, so I opted for the ten-pounder.  When I checked out, I confirmed with the store clerk that the beans in the bag were, in fact, honey beans, since the label just said “oloyin.”  He assured me they were.

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With limited time until dinner, I used the quick soak method on the beans and worked on my rendition of the sauce while they cooked.  When I tested the beans for doneness, they surprised me with their lack of sweetness — not a good sign.

Either a) the beans I purchased were, in fact, NOT honey beans, or b) they prepare the dish sold as honey beans at the Nigerian food stand with significant added sugar.  (The annoying part is I don’t know how to find out if I bought the wrong beans.)

Anyway, I try to keep sugar consumption fairly minimal, especially for Gabriel, so the last thing I wanted was to dump a ton of sugar into the bean pot.  I compromised by adding some dates (sugared, not what I usually buy, but this seemed like a good place to use them) to the sauce.  The resulting dish, while not identical to what we had at Festival of Nations, was mildly sweet and quite flavorful.

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AFRican honey beans

Recipe by Melissa, adapted from recipe in Sauce Magazine

Ingredients
3 c. dry honey beans*
1 c. bean cooking liquid (for the sauce)
1/3 c. chopped sundried tomatoes
1 c. chopped red bell pepper
1 t. onion powder
1/4 c. dates
1 vegetable bouillon cube
1 T. butter
2 t. peanut oil
1 T. coconut oil

Directions
Soak beans, either overnight or using a quick soak.  Drain, rinse, return to pan, add water just to cover, and simmer until tender but not mushy (about 45 minutes for this batch).

When beans are cooked, pour off most of the cooking liquid into a measuring cup and salt the beans.  Combine one cup of the liquid with the sundried tomatoes, bell peppers, onion powder, and dates.  Blend to a smooth, thick sauce using a hand or regular blender.

Combine all three oils in a small saucepan over gentle heat.**  Add bouillon cube, cook for a few minutes, then add the sauce from above.  Stir to combine well, then pour over the beans in the pan.

*The beans I was using may or may not have been actual honey beans — I may never know.  The good news, if you, too, have trouble locating honey beans, is that you can probably replicate this dish with other beans (perhaps black eyed peas or a small white bean, like navy beans).

**Palm oil would be traditional in this recipe, but the labor and environmental practices around farming palm oil are pretty atrocious.  The blend of oils/fats I used here was quite flavorful and worked well in the dish.

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10 Responses to African honey beans

  1. This was such a fun read and the recipe sounds so good, especially with the added dates! I recently purchased Honey Powder at Global Market soon to find out it did not contain a speck of honey! It is actually powdered agave nectar so I’ll find some fun use for it.

    • Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      The dates were definitely a good call for getting some sweetness into the dish.

      Yes, the international groceries can be tricky, even for people used to reading labels (and especially when there isn’t much of a label to read/the label is in a language I don’t speak). Powdered agave sounds like it could be interesting — I didn’t even know it existed in that form.

  2. Pingback: Lunches for the week | Her Green Life

  3. P.M.G says:

    Hello, I have a similar dilemma, I tasted this beans for the first time in 2007 and ever since I have been hooked on it, until early this year when the huge bag I purchased in 2012 ran out. Right now, I buy bits from African stores in New Jersey and to my shock this recent purchase was a mixture of two different types of bean with perhaps only 10% of beans being the honey “Oloyin” quality I was looking. I am so upset, I feel like jumping into the plane and going there to get the real deal myself. Thanks for sharing your experience. I have to find a way to solve this situation and I not sure what to do yet.

  4. Ada says:

    I’m Nigerian. I came across this while looking for a place to buy honey beans. Just wanted to say, Nigerians usually do not cook their food with any kind of added sugar. There are many cultures in Nigeria and I can’t speak for everyone. But I’m Ibo and lived almost all my life in Lagos which is a Yoruba region and adding sugar to food is not usually done. My point is that yes, these beans are naturally sweet but I had the same problem. I bought honey beans at an African market in Chicago, and I couldn’t taste any sweetness either. They looked just like the honey beans I ate all my life so I’m not sure what’s up with them. I suspect that either a) they are a different breed and are being sold as honey beans because of the similarity, or b) they’ve just stood on the shelf so long and lost their sweetness. I don’t think I’ll buy them again if I can’t confirm they are really sweet honey beans. One way to get natural sweetness in beans is to boil them with very ripe plantains. I’m curious, how did you get interested in Nigerian/African food?

    • Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      Ada, good to know that adding sugar would not be traditional in Nigerian cooking. It sounds like we had a similar experience buying “honey” beans in the U.S.

      I got interested in Nigerian cooking (and this dish specifically) after trying some Nigerian food at an international festival. I also enjoy Ethiopian food, and I imagine I would enjoy other African cuisines as well.

  5. Ada says:

    Forgot to say that I enjoyed your article. I really did. And yes palm oil tastes great in honey beans. I don’t know what you meant about the labor and environmental practices around farming palm oil.

  6. Sam M Hart says:

    Agree with Ada, Nigerians typically don’t add sweeteners to food, unless occasionally coconut milk to the rice. Those look like honey beans in the picture, but I have those too and they don’t taste like honey. Guess Ive never tasted the real deal. . . I think they taste kind of like a black-eyed pea, which is what my husband uses to make his beans (He’s also Ibo from Nigeria)

  7. Fatima says:

    Yes, I agree with Ada 100%. Typically, Nigerians do not cook beans with sugar or wine or BUTTER. What is dry sun-dried tomatoes, dates, butter, peanut oil, coconut oil and onion powder doing in beans in the name of sweetness? The common mistake with a lot of people in this society is thinking that sweetening addictive such as sugar, agave must be added to every food. It is problematic and unhealthy. They will have a better result by cooking with herbs and spices.

  8. ade says:

    Peace, all! Melissa, thanks for the shout out on Nigerian Beans. It is possible that you may have ‘cooked the sweetness out of the beans.’ You do not remove the water from the beans to make an alternate sauce. The water dries up with the beans. In removing the water, you removed the sweetness that drained into the water from the beans. The proper sauce for stew is to blend tomatoes, red bell pepper, onions, habanero peppers (as hot as you can stand) in a blender. I usually add garlic to the blend. Blend this to the consistency of canned tomato sauce. Then fry the sauce in any oil you desire or your conscience and fair trade practices allow, definitely not butter. When the stew is thickened to the point where it doesn’t run off your spoon, it is cooked. You can add pre boiled meats, fish, or tofu to the stew, if you are vegan. Your options with the stew are to (a) When the beans are almost cooked to your desired level of softeness, add it to the stew, do not drain the water. Cook some more for stew and beans to marry well or (b) spoon the stew onto the beans, loosen your belts, and chow down!

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