The peanut occupies a strange and remarkable place in our national consciousness. It's not a true nut (it's a legume, like lentils and peas), but might as well be for purposes of food allergies and supermarket inventory. It's not American, but might as well be for purposes of popular culture, from the PB&J sandwich to George Washington Carver to the lyrics of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
The genius of the peanut, as Michael Pollan might put it, is how its versatility and ease of cultivation have made it a staple of cuisines the world over, so much so that numerous countries would be hard pressed to imagine their famous dishes without peanuts. Thai satay without peanut sauce? Nigerian peanut stew without peanuts? Chinese kung pao chicken without peanuts? Indonesian gado-gado without peanut sauce? European colonialism may have been hell on people, but it sure was good to the peanut.
It's understandable, therefore, that many Chinese people believe that peanuts are in fact Chinese (actual origin: pre-Columbian Peru). Why wouldn't they? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's projections, during the 2010-11 growing season China will produce 43.5 percent of all the peanuts in the world. That's a lot of goobers. Not surprisingly, the Chinese have also devised countless ways to consume peanuts, including a great variety of snacks. This week's food fight matches up a famous Chinese brand of spicy peanuts against three new-to-me American upstarts.
To the judging!
Huang Fei Hong Numbing-Spicy Peanuts ($1.68 for a 110g bag, available at 99 Ranch and most supermarkets in Chinatown)
When I was a graduate student in Shanghai, my in-laws turned me on to these Sichuan spiced treats: extra-large Shandong peanuts, tossed with quick-fried Sichuan peppercorns and dried red chiles, and faintly dusted with spices. They are freaking awesome. The first bite brings a strong peanut flavor, followed rapidly by a light, pleasant tingling on the front and sides of your tongue, combined with mounting heat in the middle of your tongue. With each successive bite, the three elemental flavors come into sharper focus, but are never overwhelming.
Most people just eat the peanuts. If you eat the chiles and peppercorns as well, after a few minutes your lips and tongue will be almost numb, your nose will be running and your brow beaded with sweat. It's kind of like going to a sweat lodge and the dentist at the same time, except without the drill. Needless to say, this is a pro move.
This brand of peanuts is named after legendary kung fu hero Huang Fei Hong, the character played by Jet Li in the Once Upon a Time in China films. Well, more or less named after him. The character for "Hong" is written differently but has the same pronunciation. Everyone in China gets the reference; it'd be like me branding stonefruit as "Brad Pit" peaches.
Lone Star Nut and Candy Hot & Spicy Peanuts ($3.99/lb. at Central Market, available in bulk)
Neither hot nor spicy. Vaguely sweet, with only a faint bit of fire on the roof of the mouth. Inoffensive, but hardly worth the $1.20/lb. premium over Central Market's standard roasted and salted peanuts. The weirdest thing about these is that they have almost no peanut flavor.
Cajun Peanuts ($3.49/lb. at Central Market, available in bulk)
Coated with a crunchy shell like wasabi nuts, these start out sugary but are followed quickly by a flash of a Tabasco that lingers on the back of the palate. Not half bad. Here too the peanut flavor is only notional, but that's because the pepper sauce is front and center.
Lemon Chile Peanuts ($2.75/lb. at the delightful family-run Houston Pecan Company, cheaper if you buy larger quantities)
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A nice change of pace, with a strong hit of citrus at the beginning, followed by a chili powder burn at the back of the throat. Unlike the other contestants, these peanuts have a fairly thick coating of spices, requiring you to lick your fingers after almost every bite. Basically, these are like chili lime tortilla chips in peanut form. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but not what I'm looking for in a snacking peanut.
The Winner: Huang Fei Hong, in a runaway. To be honest, I expected more from the Americans. Huang Fei Hong peanuts are also available via Amazon marketplace, but those prices are artificially high, to gouge people without access to Chinese supermarkets. Just make the drive.