The peanut is a product of a trailing bush formally known as Arachis hypogaea. Despite their name, peanuts are not actually nuts, they are legumes. In most culinary uses, peanuts are classified as nuts because they behave more like nuts in the kitchen than other legumes, such as lentils and beans. For people with nut allergies, the distinction is particularly important, since many individuals with nut allergies can eat peanuts safely. Conversely, people who are allergic to peanuts can often eat nuts.
The peanut plant is native to South America, and was brought to Europe by early explorers. Peanuts are still cultivated widely in South America, as well as Africa and warmer temperate countries in Europe, such as Spain. The plant is classified as an annual, producing peanuts once before dying back. It has simple green leaves and small yellow flowers on long stalks. Here is where things start to get peculiar for the peanut plant.
As the stalks grow, they start to droop to the ground. When the pods begin to form, they slowly force their way underground, ultimately maturing under the soil, forcing the farmer to dig the netted, tan colored pods up. It is possible that peanuts developed this growth habit as a method of protection from hot tropical sun, since they have thin pods. Once the peanut pods are harvested, the plant is removed, and typically used for animal fodder.
In many parts of Africa, peanuts are more commonly known as groundnuts, a reference to the underground location favored by the pods. Peanuts play a vital nutritional role in many parts of Africa, since they are high in protein and healthy fats. In some parts of Africa, peanuts represent a substantial percentage of the protein available for consumption. In the American South, peanuts are called “goobers,” a probable corruption of a Kikongo word, nguba.
There are several important roles for peanuts in many areas of the world. A large percentage of the annual peanut harvest is pressed to yield peanut oil, a pale yellow, neutrally flavored oil with a very high smoking point. Peanut oil is ideal for frying, and is widely used in many countries for this purpose. The nuts are also ground into peanut butter, a creamy spread which is popular with people of all ages. Peanuts can be found for sale whole as well, to be eaten plain, sprinkled onto food, or included in various dishes.