the funny peté bean

Sator, or stink (or stinky) bean, is used in Thai and Indonesian cooking. In Holland it is most of the time called Peté in a modernized frenchified spelling.

We are talking about beans of the shape of a thumbnail or slightly larger, and about as thick as half a pencil. Their color is most inspiring: a difficult to define, solid pastel green that lacks most of the watery translucency normally associated with peas and green beans. Through their appearance alone, peté beans speak to us of far away countries and unknown customs. In one of Louis Couperus’s numerous novels (I forget which), a colonial poisoning during an extended meal has to take place. In the Dutch filmed version this event is duly introduced by showing how a large dish of peté beans in a hot red pepper sambal is being brought into the dining hall. In the subdued lighting and the stuffy late-nineteenth century setting they wink at us, out of their red sauce, in a most sinister way. Long before there are actual deaths to report, we shiver and huddle together.

In real life, peté beans are nothing more and nothing less than an altogether unexpected touch in one’s stir fry or sambal dish. Their smell is strong but not unpleasant. In agreement with the author of the second linked article above, I don’t think the name ‘stink bean’ is appropriate at all. They’re different, okay, but a great addition to one’s exotic first stumbling culinary steps. I assume that they have a rather high sulfur content, hence their vague resemblance to garlic.

In an Indonesian restaurant in the large mall beside the central station in the Hague, I once was graphically introduced into peté smell lore. In giving my praise for a dish, I mentioned my special love for these beans to the waiter, and herewith unleashed a sheer avalanche of stories about their use and merits, ending in an extended prognosis about where and when I would encounter their specific smell again. I will not discredit a person who deserves nothing but praise: his enthusiasm was a joy to watch.

A little more complicated is the story about picking one’s peté beans. They usually come in cans (not bad, but not very interesting), frozen or occasionally fresh, depending on the quality of the store. Peté beans, one will learn, are also loved by one particular species of worm, which in its total adoration has assumed the same surreal pasty green color and usually resides in a homely channel between the two halves of the bean. To discard the inhabitant and cut away some parts of the bean is, as a whole, not a very messy or complicated affair, but one ought to be prepared. I encountered these stinky worms for the first time in a batch of frozen beans and, as such, they came a little unexpected.

So, this is the true character of peté beans: they inspire the telling of wacky stories. A good friend threw an Indonesian food party in his apartment in the Hague. When the turn came to the beans, he explained to the uninitiated among the guests what they were, adding that there was one thing about them he’d rather not like to mention. Later that evening I enthusiastically introduced my frozen worms to the group. “Well,” said my friend, “that was what I didn’t want to mention.”

Believe me, Peté beans are delicious. Do add them to your stir fry next time around.

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