food The Global Love of Boiled Peanuts
The Global Love of Boiled Peanuts
It’s a hot, muggy summer day in Atlanta; a day for porches, patios, and pools, with the siren song of long days and community pulling me out into the summer heat. I’m perched on an outdoor stool at The Local, a longtime beloved Atlanta institution and the first bar I ever visited in town. I’ve ordered boiled peanuts (some of my favorites in town), and a woman, sad after a disappointing date, sits down next to me and we share the peanuts while she talks. One of the bartenders comes out, and we hand peanuts to him, too, and then my friend who came to meet me shows up.
The paper basket of peanuts, and the second basket for their discarded shells, begin making the rounds between myself and people who were strangers just a few minutes before. We talk about the many different ways people eat boiled peanuts, noting regional differences and personal preferences in each of our approaches, though ultimately, as the bartender says, “there’s no wrong way to eat a boiled peanut.”
For many Southerners, boiled peanuts are a quintessential regional food, bringing to mind roadside stands.
But like apples and all-American apple pie (which was originally from England), boiled peanuts are not, in fact, unique to or even from this region. Boiled peanuts span continents, a food that emerged from its troubled, tumultuous past to gain a foothold in Senegal, China, India, Hawaii, and the American South. Today, the story of the boiled peanut is a global love story.
Beginning as a crop in the Andes, where archaeologists have found peanuts buried in tombs and adorning pottery, peanuts come from two wild species that were crossed in Bolivia around 10,000 years ago.
But the full story of boiled peanuts, and peanuts in general, is far from celebratory, as it is also the story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. When the Spanish colonized the Americas, starting at the end of the 15th century, they brought peanuts back to Europe, and the heat-loving legume was later brought to Africa by the Portuguese. According to Robert Deen's The Boiled Peanut Book, the peanut’s nickname, goober, is said to come from the word nguba, or peanut, in the Kongo and Kimbundi languages. The plants thrived, and the peanuts returned to the Americas alongside people who would never see their homelands again. So while the peanut itself is indigenous to the Americas, the cooking process is African, and this process has spread around the world, the result of intercontinental trade, colonization, slavery, and immigration.
The story of boiled peanuts is as complex, fraught, and global as the South itself. To acknowledge the complexity, and challenges, of their history is to acknowledge the ingenuity of the people who worked to preserve their culinary heritage and to bring their love of their food and their history to us today. As food historian Michael Twitty said, “Boiled peanuts in every Southern gas station? That’s Senegal.”
Senegal is one of the largest peanut producers in the world, but they’re a local business, too, sold from street vendors and cooked in homes. For chef Serigne Mbaye, the founder of Dakar NOLA, boiled peanuts were a childhood staple. Mbaye was born in the U.S. but spent most of his childhood and adolescence in Senegal, bringing his deep love of Senegalese food and heritage with him when he returned to the States. After graduating from culinary school in 2016, he came to New Orleans, quickly rising through the ranks of respected restaurants before eventually founding Dakar NOLA, which uses food to explore the cultural connections between Louisiana and Senegal. Dakar NOLA has operated as a pop-up dinner concept for several years, and Mbaye recently left his role as chef-de-cuisine at Mosquito Supper Club to pursue a brick-and-mortar space for his restaurant.
While peanuts appear in many Senegalese dishes, such as mafe (meat stewed in a peanut sauce and served over rice), boiled or steamed peanuts in particular are a common snack served with tea. In some cases, the peanuts are boiled, then tossed in a hot pan before serving. He also likes to toast them and use them as garnish for salads.
Mbaye says it’s important to use slightly unripe peanuts with a softer shell, sometimes called green peanuts, because hard-shelled peanuts take too long to cook. It seems likely that boiled peanuts emerged from a need to use these slightly underripe peanuts during harvest season; they couldn’t be stored long-term like dried, mature peanuts but were still delicious.
When Mbaye moved to the South, he found a familiar taste of home. Over the years, he’s come up with a new idea that brings together his family and adopted home. “I saw how people in New Orleans do a crawfish boil and thought, what if you do a peanut boil the same way?” Using crawfish boil spices, but adding honey to mimic the sweetness of the corn, Mbaye makes a boiled peanut that proves even this old dish can learn new tricks. When he opens Dakar NOLA’s permanent space, he plans to put the peanuts on the menu.
While the food is a staple in Senegal, boiled peanuts are also found farther south in Nigeria. In some cases, peanuts are also called groundnuts, though in many places, the term is used to refer to a different legume.
Ayeni Dasola’s love for the snack also stretches back to her childhood in northern Nigeria, where peanuts are grown. Better known as Chef Dassy, the Nigerian personal chef and food writer from Abuja recalls, “It was my mother’s favorite roadside snack. She’d buy enough for the two of us to munch on while watching our favorite evening TV shows.” Her mom still eats them almost every day.
In Nigeria, boiled peanuts are a street food served plain, she tells me, and notes that a few brave souls eat them shells and all. In addition to being a roadside food eaten at home, they’re a seasonal road trip food, and the peanuts, simply seasoned with salt, are a favorite travel treat.
Similar to those prepared in Senegal and Nigeria, the Southern boiled peanut is the food of snacks, road trips, and community. Peanuts were quick to adapt to the South's long, hot summer days, just as they were to Senegal’s and Nigeria’s. Here, boiled peanuts are a critical component of road trips, whether from a roadside stand or from a gas station. A lot of people in the South have strong summertime memories around boiled peanuts, and Sylvan Tomlin, a former vegan chef and founder of Atlanta handiwork collective Queer Hands, is no different.
“When I was growing up, they were always in a brown paper bag lined with a thin plastic bag. That paper bag managed to keep it together just long enough for me and my mom to work through all the peanuts, and then promptly dissolved. When I was a kid … it was always a Cheerwine or Red Rock ginger ale and boiled peanuts. Or an ICEE. An ICEE and boiled peanuts are crucial for summertime day trips for me now.”
Atlanta-based chef and bartender at Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q Kyle Nicklaw has similar memories, first becoming familiar with boiled peanuts on trips with his grandmother. He now enjoys them as a bar snack, and recommends them alongside a beer, noting that the saltiness of the peanuts and the refreshing beverage “usually pair well together.”
Southern boiled peanuts run the gamut of flavors. Although the standard boiled peanut, according to Nicklaw, is just a water and salt brine, there are many variations seasoned with beer, cumin, coriander, chile flakes, dried chiles, barbecue sauce, and smoked pork. “The seasoning, I think, is what most people will consider their ‘secret recipe,’ and everyone has their own,” Nicklaw says.
Tomlin boils them with garlic and cayenne, and she says the setting is just as important as the seasoning. “The best ones are probably after swimming all day in a North Georgia swimming hole when I forgot to pack lunch, and there’s a nice old man, it’s always a nice old man, with a big pot selling BOILED P-NUTS in his yard, and I’m so hungry from the cold waters and I practically drink the brine and throw the shells out the window and it happens over and over, year after year, and it’s always the best.”
Nicklaw's favorites come from a little roadside stand in McDonough, Georgia, next to an old tire shop. “It was a husband and wife who had two big boilers set up outside under this old wood shack. You could go there on the weekends, and there would be a line because you could get a grocery bag full for $7 or a large cup for $3. Their two varieties were just the regular salted peanuts, or you could get the spicy ones with lots of red chile flake.”
Sometimes the secret recipe takes peanut aficionados to unexpected places, even to dessert territory. Tomlin recalls a road trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains where chocolate boiled peanuts were on the menu of a roadside stand alongside regular and Cajun seasoned ones. The man who was running the stand had his grandkids with him and told Tomlin that the kids made him do it because they loved chocolate.
“I’m not a big fan of things being sweet when they aren’t normally sweet, but I had never seen this before, and $5 was a low price to sate my curiosity. But here’s the thing I always forget about boiled peanuts — they're fucking peanuts like what’s in Snickers, Peanut Buster Parfaits, peanut butter,” Tomlin says. “Boiled peanuts are so wildly different in flavor, texture, and presentation, I always forget it’s the same food. But you add chocolate and it tastes like a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup but with the texture of a garbanzo bean. It really messed with my brain … but it was $5 well spent.”
Despite the surge in popularity of Southern restaurants outside the South, boiled peanuts are primarily found in the region. According to Tomlin, most people who’ve spent their lives outside the South have never tried them.
“Even in Philly, people had no idea what I was talking about. I had a friend who had just moved here, and she was from Ohio. I tried to introduce her to boiled peanuts, but she had already tried them — in China, where she had taught. She said they were very popular there.”
Peanuts have a long history of cultivation in China, going back as far as the 1500s and likely introduced to port cities in Fujian province by Portuguese traders. Today China is the world’s largest peanut producer and consumer, with the legume appearing in a vast array of dishes across the country’s diverse culinary regions. Peanuts are so popular that they have to be imported to keep up with demand. Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice shares uses for boiled peanut flour, peanut oil, crushed peanuts, roasted peanuts, and just about every other peanut preparation imaginable.
While boiled peanuts tend to be left out of most English-language Chinese cookbooks, they are a popular snack. Five-spice boiled peanuts are made with a range of variations in spicing, often eaten at home as an evening snack. According to food writer Kian Lam Kho, who specializes in Chinese home cooking in America, “to someone growing up in Asia in the 1960s ‘boiled peanuts and a movie’ is what ‘popcorn and a movie’ is to the American moviegoers.”
For Chinese-American food writer Su-Jit Lin, boiled peanuts meant time with family. “I remember having them as a kid in my grandparents’ home in the suburbs of Long Island, New York. The Chinese have a love affair with peanuts, and my family’s ancestry hails from southern China — [the city of] Fuzhou. Which is a funny parallel that we boiled peanuts, since it’s also more prevalent in the American South to boil instead of roast them. In Chinese beliefs, roasting is a ‘hot’ form of cooking since it’s dry, so boiling them is a ‘cooler’ way to enjoy the snack and better for your health — less irritating to your internal chi.”
Though Kho’s family would spice the boiling water, in Lin’s family, the peanuts shone on their own without added seasonings. “Good peanuts are sweet when you boil them and have their own meaty flavor. ”
Peanuts made a move again in the 19th century, when Chinese immigrants brought boiled peanuts to Hawaii. Hawaiian boiled peanuts make appearances while on the road and at a whole host of events, from softball games to family potlucks to a day of fishing. According to Hawaiian chef Sheldon Simeon, they’re also the quintessential pa’u hana (after work) treat. But unlike Southern boiled peanuts, some Hawaiian versions, like Simeon’s scented with citrus peel and five-spice seasoning, speak deeply of the intercontinental story of boiled peanuts: an ingredient that moved around the world, adapting to the cuisine in each place it landed. Wherever you find them, boiled peanuts are a blank canvas for endless personalization and creativity.
Despite the peanut’s global reach, its popularity hasn’t waned in its native range, either, where boiled peanuts are still eaten. Boiled peanuts appear in Bahia, Brazil, a state with strong culinary echoes of African cuisine due to the area’s strong historical ties to the slave trade. Here, boiled peanuts are eaten as a street food, as are other foods like acarajé (blacked-eyed pea fritters akin to Senegalese akara), which is rooted in West African culinary culture. In Mexico, where peanut cultivation spread during pre-colonial times, peanuts remain a popular snack. And though they aren’t often boiled, one of the most popular ways to eat them is cacahuates japonés, so named because this style was introduced by a Japanese immigrant named Yoshigei Nakatani.
Peanuts also made their way to India. Nandita Godbole, author of Masaleydaar: Classic Indian Spice Blends, says they’re “consumed across the country.” At Godbole’s family farm, they would gather with the farmhands and everyone would eat boiled peanuts together.
“One large cauldron was made, everyone got a heaping scoop on a plate, or gathered around a communal plate, and dug in. It is great during the monsoon season when it is pouring so hard that one can’t do anything but sit around. The slow and deliberate act of shelling, popping a few freshly boiled and succulent peanuts, seasoned only with a hint of salt and turmeric, became a good, lighthearted activity for a rainy, lazy afternoon.”
Archish Kashikar, an independent food scholar and research chef, notes that there is no clear origin story for peanut production in India. However, India has become a major producer of peanuts, and the states producing them have largely integrated them into local diets. Kashikar was raised in Nashik in the north of Maharashtra, a peanut-producing state in the western peninsular region of India. There, peanuts are a part of daily life.
“Peanuts are found in almost everything we eat, from spice pastes to dry condiments to boiled peanuts as a snack,” he says.
While Kashikar’s family loves to “boil” them in a pressure cooker either with salt or with a bit of turmeric powder and black rock salt, he has also seen boiled peanuts on street carts or near parks, markets, and other recreational areas. Boiled peanuts are sometimes eaten as a “chaat,” an umbrella term for a type of spicy and tangy street food served all across India, where boiled peanuts are mixed with chopped onions, tomatoes, coriander, lime juice, and red chili powder. Occasionally, boiled peanuts are also served with chopped raw mangoes or topped with sev, a crunchy fried snack made with chickpea flour. They’ve also become a beloved travel food, with boiled and seasoned peanuts once a common sight on trains.
The peanut’s story is never about just one place or time.
Around the world, the love story of boiled peanuts continues to unfold. It’s a story primarily divided into two parts: The love of eating and the love of the people you’re eating with.
So what makes a boiled peanut lovable? For many folks, it’s part texture, part flavor, and part emotional connection. Lin notes that boiling peanuts unlocks a completely different flavor from roasting: “They’re sweeter, meatier, and stay firm but have a slight tenderness to them.” Boiled peanuts are a blank canvas for your imagination and your spice cabinet, and can be salty, sweet, or even chocolatey.
But ultimately, what makes boiled peanuts lovable is the people they’re shared with. Nicklaw’s grandmother brought him boiled peanuts each week, an expression of care and love during his first years living on his own. Some of Lin’s fondest childhood memories involve peeling open peanuts at the kitchen table and eating them while watching her grandmother cook.
Kashikar’s peanut memories are family memories, too. “Eating boiled peanuts became an occasional family activity as it involved buying fresh bunches of peanuts, cleaning the dirt off the pods and picking off the roots and leaves, then cooking them. We used to serve them whole, and there was a certain joy in peeling the cooked soft shells open and sucking on the salty, earthy water in it, and then eating the sweet peanuts hiding inside! Sometimes my cousins and I had competitions to see who was the fastest in peeling and eating our pile of peanuts.”
Community is at the heart of eating boiled peanuts, an activity often done with friends and family. To me, boiled peanuts have always signaled an adventure: eaten on the way to do something wonderful — swimming, going to the beach, seeing friends, or hiking in the woods.
The love story is a tangible one: Boiled peanuts ask you to dive in with your hands and all your senses to peel and eat this special snack. While community is a big part of the love story, so is joy. It’s hard to be mad tucking into a perfectly cooked, tender shell. For Tomlin, it’s the whole peanut experience from start to finish, and perhaps a future career.
“I love food you gotta work for. I love tossing things out the window. I love salt so much. I love that maybe one day, if I’m cool enough to find a big pot, I could be boiled peanut man, if my community needed that.”
Julia Skinner, Ph.D., is the founder of Root, an Atlanta-based fermentation and food history company that offers consulting for creatives, plus classes and events. She’s the author of the award-winning book Our Fermented Lives: A History of How Fermented Foods Have Shaped Cultures and Communities and Afternoon Tea: A History. Her writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers in the U.S. and beyond, as well as in her weekly newsletter. She is also a visual artist, and cares for two small Georgia nature preserves.