Illustration by By Francisco Manuel Blanco / Wikimedia Commons

Known in North America and Europe as the winged bean; also called a Goa bean, asparagus bean, four-angled bean, Manila bean and princess pea. Scientific name: Psophocarpus tetragonolobus.

A tropical legume native to New Guinea that grows abundantly in countries with hot, humid climates.

Winged beans are climbing plants that tumble into heaps on the ground if left untended. Staked upright, they grow for up to 4 metres tall, and every year bloom with a plethora of white, blue, deep purple or pink flowers that quickly develop into pods (the form cooked winged beans are often consumed in).

According to a National Academy of Sciences study, winged bean pods can occur “in such abundance that they often enshroud the whole vine.” When picked young and prepared correctly, winged bean pods are succulent and tender-crisp. Cooked, Elizabeth Schneider writes, “their flavour is between that of a shell bean and a pod bean; meatier, blander and starchier-tasting than string beans, but crunchier and greener-flavoured than a shell bean.”

Supermarket on a stalk

“Everything goes into the pot,” the study continues. “Its leaves are cooked and eaten like spinach, its shoots resemble lacy thin asparagus, and its flowers, when steamed or fried, make a sweet garnish with the appearance and texture of mushrooms.”

At the root of it, an ally to soil ecology

Like other legumes, winged beans have the ability of converting nitrogen from the air into a form usable by plants. The winged bean’s roots, which enlarge to form edible carrot-sized tubers, are exceptionally rich in protein, containing “up to four times as much as potatoes, and more than eight times as much as cassava.”

I came upon winged beans while flipping through Elizabeth Schneider’s must-have reference guide, Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide. In her hallmark prose, she writes:

“The winged bean…is as variously bountiful as Al Capp’s shmoo: It produces shoots, leaves, flowers, tubers, pods, seeds (and a cooking oil from these) that are all tasty, nutritious and comparatively high in protein.

The parts of the plant generally eaten – the pods and flowers – are beautiful. Each one has four slightly ruffled, equally spaced wings or fins (of a material reminiscent of the wings of maple seeds) that run its length, so slices resemble a tapered cross.”

Some of the best descriptors, in my opinion, for the third vegetable quoted in Bahay Kubo, a folksong about a living in a nipa hut that every Filipino kid knows (at some point in their life) by heart.

I’m certainly craving ginataang sigarilyas (winged beans cooked in coconut milk) right about now!

Further reading:

• “The Winged Bean: A High-Protein Crop for the Tropics” published by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. Of note here is the establishment of the Winged Bean Information and Documentation Service Center – a computerized database, operational in 1981, that was manned by the Agricultural Information Bank for Asia in the Philippines. “Few crops have risen so quickly…to the winged bean’s current level of prominence,” it cites, positing that “the plant holds such promise that its former obscurity is baffling.” How much further have we come along on winged bean research and development, I wonder?

• The Winged Bean Flyer. Lots more information on the bean’s history, taxonomy and cultivation from a dedicated researcher.

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