Beans have always been a staple for the Mayas. They have a large variety of beans: Boloc’ che, Tzama (red & black) variety, Xchalaatbu-ul, Xme-hen bu-ul, and Xpascuabu-ul. They eat beans almost daily with rice and tortillas. Their diet is also complemented with cowpeas which are planted during the months of June and July to be eaten starting in late October for the observance of All Saints Day or Finados. Local lima beans are also cultivated for the preparation of the special Mayan dish called Xtoc sel.
Many of the Mayan beans are large with a thicker skin and have much more “bean” pulp than the typical black or red beans grown in Belize. (See issue 15, page 18 of the Belize Ag Report for a more complete description of Mayan beans.)
If you want to grow and harvest beans the way the Mayas did and many still do, here’s what you should know:
Local Mayan selected beans are photo-periodic and grow better when planted during the months of August or September. Beans planted in late September or early October have less vine (vegetative) development before flowering. As the day light length decreases it stimulates the bean to flower. It usually takes about 3 months for most Mayan beans to develop pods. If you want to grow the beans only for nourishing the soil with nitrogen, plant after the dry season, usually in June. The beans planted in June are mostly vines and do not flower until the month of November. Beans for this purpose are usually plowed under to maximize nitrogen fixation.
The method of harvesting beans depends on what you intend to do with them. If you intend to eat them you should pick them ripe (which is indicated by the color of the pod) before the pod dries and turns brown. Dry the harvest-ripe beans by hanging the pods to dry in the sun until the pods begin to explode, a clear sign that they are properly dry and ready to be shelled and stored. Place dry pods in a clean bag and beat it to release the bean and then winnow the smaller trash before storage. Dry pods may also be stored in large baskets made of bay leaf and white lime added to discourage weevil infestation. The beans harvested and left in the pod tend to cook better and softer than those left shelled and dried under direct sun light.
Regardless of the method of harvest and drying, most Mayan beans need a longer cooking time. Like most beans, soaking them overnight reduces the cooking time. If you soak them overnight the cooking time is about 2 1/2 hours. If you cook them in a pressure cooker they can be cooked in 30 – 35 minutes. Of course, the Mayas cooked beans in a large pot over an open fire; it took many hours to cook them. The fire hearth gives beans a special taste and aroma.
The Mayas always saved beans for the next planting. The bean pods left on the vines to dry are usually weevil infested and not used for this purpose. Well developed and full pods that have the unique characteristic of the variety are selected, manually shelled and grain selected for the next planting season. This is done just before the planting date.
If you want to save beans for the next planting be sure to store them in a jar or other air-tight container to keep them dry. The Mayas stored them in the bay leaf basket (Nas-haac’). Beans stored in this manner remain viable for only one year. In our modern day, dry selected bean seed can be stored in an airtight container or Ziplock bag in the refrigerator and will remain viable for 2 to 3 years.
Belize Ag Report