Mung Beans (Vigna radiata)


Vigna radiata, known as mung beans or green gram (previously Phaseolus aureus), is a member of the legume family and a very useful crop for agricultural workers of the early modern period. Originating in India as early as 1500 BCE, the mung bean has historically been grown in warmer climates, able to thrive in tropical areas with little rainfall, though ideally a rainy season plant.[1] There is also evidence that the green gram spread to China and Southeast Asia as early as 3000 years ago, known there as nga choi.[2] Having been harvested in regions where many European powers had colonial outposts, green gram was likely exported to Europe for consumption.

Having been first domesticated in Manchuria, mung beans have been incorporated into various Asian dishes including zongzi, eaten at the Dragon Boat Festival.[3] A cultural dish specific to China, zongzi is traditionally made from sticky rice and wrapped in bamboo leaves with different recipes often times calling for special fillings, ranging from sweet to savory. In many cases, the choice of filling is geographically specific with diverse regions of China cooking their zongzi differently. Green gram, prepared as a paste, is a typical filling in eastern Asia such as Suzhou, Jiaxing, and Ningbo where the stuffing is a mixture of bean paste and pork.[4] This festive use of mung beans is just one of a great variety of ways that they would have been implemented by people of the early modern times.

Used in many different forms, mung beans would likely have been a significant product for consumption. While they can be eaten whole, the beans themselves are also able to be ground into flours for soups, breads, porridges, and noodles. In addition, the bean sprouts are widely used in cooking and the peapod a commonly eaten vegetable, evidence that the crops were employed in a multiplicity of ways. Not only this, but green gram is also a very good source of protein and thus is capable of being substituted for animal meat, possibly in cultures where consumption of certain meats were forbidden or in regions where animal meat is scarce.[5] The various means of preparing mung beans in dishes suggests their value as an individual harvesting the beans could prepare them in multiple ways to suit their needs.

Aside from consumption, green gram would also likely have been a very important crop for landowners and rural farmers as it has vital agricultural benefits. If a particular crop of mung beans has not suitably bloomed, it can easily be used as food for various livestock, ensuring that the product would not be wasted. Aside from unsuccessful crops, green gram can also be grown as hay or silage to be animal fodder, and is an important crop for early forage, as it can outcompete similar legumes. Further evidence of the significance of mung beans, they also make an excellent green manure that would be useful for farmers to prepare soil for later crops and, when planted, facilitate nitrogen fixation, both useful functions to fertilize existing plots.[6] These different uses outside of consumption ensure that farmers could continually reap the rewards of the crop even after bad years.[7]

Found in Petrus de Crescentius’ Ruralia Commoda, this image is meant to be a supplement to the volume in a section entitled “Of Fieldwork and Its Products” in Book Three, “Agriculture of Cereals and Building a Granary.” Crescentius’ extensive twelve-book work is widely considered to be one of the first and most important volumes written on horticulture and agriculture, as it detailed the procedures for everything from tilling land to properly growing crops to creating a stable farm.[8] Though the intent of the volume seems instructional, the presence of this particular image of a more tropical green gram plant seems to contradict this purpose. The original volumes of the Ruralia Commoda, published in 1471, contained no images at all while a German edition published in 1493 contained over two hundred woodcut illustrations such as the mung bean plant. As the anthology increased in popularity, manuscript copies were produced with painted illustrations and illuminated pages, indicating the possible elite status of its audience.[9]

The care put into Crescentius’ work suggests that it was not merely a handbook for the workingman, but an encyclopedic source of knowledge for the elite. The presence of a plant such as the green gram, found in tropical climates far different from that of Europe, begs the question of why a common farmer would need information on a plant they could not farm. Given the simplicity of an image such as this, it is unlikely that this image was used as an agricultural reference implemented by a farmer; it is possible, however, that the Ruralia Commoda was actually used as a vessel of globalization, allowing the wealthy (those who could obtain such an expensive work) to learn about other geographic regions and the natural wonders to be found there. A European landowner would not have any practical need for knowledge of the plant, but the inclusion of illustrations of green gram and other transcontinental plants might have been to satisfy a new curiosity on the part of the elite about foreign cultures.

An image such as this woodcut of a mung bean plant is possibly informational (though its crudeness suggests otherwise), providing knowledge about a crop to those who could obtain the Ruralia Commoda in order to create a high quality product. However, the mung bean itself is evidence of vast global ties as it has clearly moved from very different cultures, originating in India and eventually sparking a fascination with foreign regions on the part of the Europeans. A culturally Asian ingredient, green gram seems to be one of many pieces included in Crescentius’ horticultural anthology to provide information about overseas practices to the intellectually inquisitive. In addition, the various agricultural and nutritional advantages show the significance of such a crop to an Asian farmer, and the cultural ties of the mung bean gives further evidence to its significance as a whole in the early modern period.

[1]Heuzé, V., G. Tran, D. Bastianelli, and F. Lebas. "Mung Bean (Vigna Radiata)." Feedipedia - Animal Feed Resources Information System. August 13, 2013. Accessed November 19, 2014.

[2] "Mung Beans." Cereals and Pulses. January 1, 2008. Accessed November 19, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] "Festival Food: Rice Glue Ball, Zongzi, and Moon Cake." Confucius Institute Online. February 20, 2010. Accessed November 20, 2014.

[5] “Heuzé, V.” op. cit.

[6] Oplinger, E.S., L.L. Hardman, A.R. Kaminski, S.M. Combs, and J.D. Doll. "Mungbean." Alternative Field Crops Manual. November 21, 1997. Accessed November 19, 2014.

[7] Andersen, Craig R. "Mung Beans." Agriculture and Natural Resources- Home Gardening Series. Accessed November 19, 2014.

[8] Smith, Margaret. "Petrus De Crescentius, Ruralia Commoda, 1471." University of Reading Library Special Collections. April 1, 2005. Accessed November 19, 2014.

[9] Ibid.

Mung Beans (Vigna radiata)