While on a canned green jackfruit hunt this past spring, I found myself patiently waiting in line to check out at a Thai-Lao grocery and happened to glance on the checkout-counter at a basket containing small plastic bags of various seeds for planting. Most I recognized: bitter melon, bottle gourd, basil…but one package in particular attracted my interest. I thought, “My gosh, these look just like val with that tell-tale stripe on the seam, but…but, they’re black!” Fascinated, I added a packet to my pile to purchase.
When it was my turn at the check-out, I inquired what these beans were called and what they were used for. The owner of the shop didn’t know what they were called in English, but stated that, in her culture, they were usually used while green, and that they had very beautiful flowers that were often used for tucking into hair-do’s and for fresh decorations for use around the home and for festivals.
Indeed, a little research on the internet when I returned home confirmed my suspicion. I immediately had inflated fantasies of growing these beans to their dark-hued maturity and proudly displaying them here and featured in traditional dishes in place of their pale sisters. But no…after they were planted, wily vines began to grow and grow. The vines bore beautiful purple-tinged leaves. And it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that the flowers came: a mass of pale violet that collected much admiration from my mother and the neighbors. May I pick a few? I sighed and consented of course. At this time of year very few blooms are to be seen: marigolds mostly. Dark, dark violet pods did indeed develop though, and though I kept checking, the beans inside were still young and green with not enough time to mature and be used to fulfill my blackened fantasy. Because, my dear readers, the first frost that is the deadline for tender harvest here in the bay of green will be tonight. (October 27th) Finito.
So… something valuable can be learned, and perhaps it is this: if you live in a place where the winter is long and you wish to grow a tropical legume, do start the seeds early indoors if you’d like an impressive fall harvest of endless pods and, with hope, some mature beans. However, if all you’d like to enjoy are the beautiful leaves and flowers, and maybe a few green/unripe pods, then do as I did and plant them casually…
At left on the ground are dragon’s tongue beans; white bitter melon vines twine over the left trellis and part of the right, mixing with a stray cucumber vine and hyacinth beans (which eventually take over). Globe thistle tries to stay out of the party in the center, but is harrassed by both the bitter melons and hyacinth beans.
Although the first name that I learned for these beans was the Marathi term val, I later learned that these were known variously in English as hyacinth beans, Bangalore beans, Indian beans, Egyptian beans or lab-lab beans, and avarekaalu in Kannada. More information can be read here and here, and seeds for planting (both purple and white) may be ordered here.
Shilpa of Aayi’s Recipes has a beautiful entry in her glossary with more information and names in other languages which may be found here, as well as a rather tasty-looking dosa recipe and a fortifying chitranna– both of which use these beans.
I also found a marvelous-looking saaru recipe and informative post here from Suma of Veggie Platter, and Srivalli of Cooking 4 All Seasons even has a fan club devoted to this time-honoured dish from a family friend!