The One-stalk Supermarket

25 Nov 2010

Meet the humble wing or winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), a traditional vegetable that’s been around for millennia. You’ve probably never heard of it, but this neglected legume is about to experience resurgence in recognition and profile. Slow Food Ubud has adopted it as a project with the intention of encouraging commercial cultivation, for the wing bean could quickly replace imported soybeans in the manufacture of tempe and tofu in Indonesia, as well as providing a healthy and easily cultivated source of protein in many other dishes across the archipelago. With a little selective breeding, the wing bean could raise the standard of living and nutrition for millions of people in poor, tropical countries.

The wing bean (kecipir in Indonesia and kelongkang in Balinese) has been called the ‘one-stalk supermarket’ or ‘God-given plant’ because practically all of the plant is edible and nutritious. The beans are used as a vegetable but the leaves, flowers and tuberous roots can also be eaten. The tender pods, which have a flavor similar to asparagus, can be harvested within two or three months of planting. The pale blue flowers are used to color rice and pastries. The young leaves can be picked and prepared as a leaf vegetable, similar to spinach. The roots, which have a nutty flavor, can be used like a potato and are much higher in protein. The dried beans are similar to soybeans in both use and nutritional content and can be used as flour or made into milk, tempe or tofu.

In fact anything a soybean can do, a wing bean can do better. It’s a climbing plant, so takes less land to produce the same harvest. It prefers to grow in the humid tropics. Every part of the wing bean is nutritious: the pods at 12% protein, seeds over 30%, leaves and flowers 5% and tubers as high as 30%. Wing beans have the highest calcium content among all legumes and are also an excellent source of minerals, vitamins (especially A and C), iron and enzymes. Yet only in Burma are wing beans grown commercially. In the rest of Asia they are a casual, back-yard crop.

The plant is one of the best nitrogen fixers through the soil bacterium Rhizobium, so cultivation requires very little or no fertilizer. With regular watering, the plants should produce mature wing beans in four to five months and will continue to bear for as long as two years. Yields can reach 5 tons/hectare for beans with green pods, dry seed and tubers. Soybean harvests in Indonesia average between one and two tons/hectare.

Slow Food Ubud, a group of enthusiastic food producers, consumers, restaurant owners and chefs, held a workshop on wing beans on Sunday October 17 at the Pejeng Permaculture Centre. It was a chance to get together and share ideas and plans as well as introduce the group’s latest project. Participants learned about the versatility and nutritional properties of this legume, helped create a sponge compost area in which to plant the beans and sampled several wing bean dishes.

Slow Food Ubud’s members are interested in making food more personal – in connecting the grower with the consumer, preserving artisanal food traditions, helping develop food products that profile Bali, promoting a more local diet and in delivering nutritional education to the community.

“Education is an important part of our mandate,” points out Slow Food Ubud Convivium Leader Mary Jane Edleson. “Our current wing bean project introduces a valuable traditional vegetable with huge potential for improving nutrition and reducing soy bean imports.” About 70 percent of the two million tons of soybeans used by Indonesian tempe and tofu producers every year are imported, mostly from the United States and Brazil. In the first half of 2010, we imported soybeans worth over US$346 million from the United States alone.

One of Slow Food Ubud’s projects is to promote the wing bean through programs in several elementary schools. These programs use the wing bean to teach sustainable cultivation techniques (composting, seed saving, integrated pest management), nutrition and early entrepreneurship by making milk and snacks for sale. The children will also interview their elders to learn about their culinary heritage, traditional foods and growing techniques that are already disappearing.

The Balinese have grown rice and other foods using natural fertilizers for over a thousand years. Until a generation or two ago, the traditional Balinese diet was a wholesome one that included tubers, red rice, coconut, plenty of leafy greens, fruit, tofu and tempe. Coconut oil was laborious to make so it was used more as a flavor enhancer than for frying; food was boiled, grilled, steamed in banana leaves or smoked. Meat and eggs were usually eaten only on special occasions in rural communities. My housekeeper Wayan Manis, now 35, grew up in Singakerta near Ubud. When she was a child the family rarely ate rice; all they could grow was sold for badly needed cash. They ate sweet potatoes for carbohydrate and weeds from the fields, fruit and vegetables from the garden, tofu and an occasional egg. She rarely tasted meat.

Today the diet has changed radically. Ironically, prosperity has pushed the healthiest foods right off the plate. Carbohydrate consumption is very high with most Balinese eating white rice two or three times a day, sometimes along with instant noodles and white bread (made from imported wheat) and increasing amounts of heavily processed snacks and biscuits. Cheap subsidized palm oil encourages the consumption of many fried foods. Children fill up on packaged snacks loaded with oil, salt, sugar and preservatives. Everyone eats much more refined food and meat, mainly pork and chicken fed with growth hormones, than a decade ago. Diabetes and other diseases associated with an imbalanced diet are rampant.

Everyone knows that good food takes time – to plan, shop for, prepare and cook – and that the freshest ingredients are those which are locally produced. As our food options become more limited because of the global industrialization of food, the Slow Food movement is gathering momentum and reminding people all over the world about their disappearing culinary legacies. Workshops and other activities in the developing world help farmers understand the issues. The Slow Fish campaign addresses sustainable fisheries. In places as geographically and culturally distant as New York City, a fishing village in Greece and a farming community in Uganda, people are coming together to explore and honor the food from their own environments.

In 2004, Slow Food started the Terra Madre world meeting of food communities in Turin. This is a forum for all those who seek to grow, raise, catch, create, distribute and promote food in ways that respect the environment, defend human dignity and protect the health of consumers. It takes place every two years. Balinese food technologist and sustainability researcher Pak Adi Kharisma has been invited to attend every Terre Madre event. This year he took along Ubud sustainable agriculture trainer Chakra Widia and an elementary school principal from Blimbing with whom Pak Adi had set up a wing bean project. They shared information about the project with thousands of other participants and brought back inspiration for the Ubud group.

On December 3, Slow Food Ubud will be celebrating its first anniversary with a 50 Mile Dinner at the Maya Ubud Resort. Maya Chef Kath Townsend, a Slow Food member and passionate locavore, is designing a unique meal that will use Balinese ingredients within an exotic Spanish/Basque menu. Unable to locate organic pork for the dinner, she has commissioned a staff member to raise a pig on chemical-free kitchen scraps from the Resort. Proceeds from the dinner will go toward the multi-year Wing Bean Elementary School Project.

The members of Slow Food Ubud have plenty of other ideas for projects and activities. We’re talking about an event celebrating traditional Balinese cakes, a project for nutritious school snacks, a seed-saving cooperative, books, dinners, workshops and farm visits. If you care about the quality of the food you and your family consume in Bali, join Slow Food Ubud by going to and clicking the red JOIN US! Then go to www. for a list of our activities. We welcome new members with new ideas as we work together to change the world – one bean at a time.

Ibu Kat
E-mail: [email protected]

Copyright © 2010 Greenspeak
First Published in the Bali Advertiser

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