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Leaving the boring old Baked Beans on white bread behind

I am guessing that you like baked beans.

Most of us don’t mind them. After all, what’s not to like: it’s just a question of putting rajma in a light tomato sauce? How can anyone object to that!


But, no matter how much you like baked beans, you will never love them as much as the British. According to Heinz which dominates the UK baked beans market, 43 per cent of Brits eat baked beans at least once a week.


   And yet, though they love them so much, adds Heinz, about 20 per cent of all baked beans fans eat them all wrong. So Heinz, has recently issued a five-point guide to tell you how you should store, cook and eat baked beans.


   Step one is that baked beans lovers should first toast two side of “white farmhouse bread”, ie: commercial or supermarket bread: none of that Continental Sour Dough nonsense for Brits. Step two says that cans of beans must always be stored upside down and then shaken for five second before opening to evenly distribute the tomato sauce.


   Step three is to gently warm the beans on your hob (gas or electric) but to NEVER B0lL. (The capital letters form part of Heniz’s instructions). Step four is to use unsalted butter on the toast. And step five is to carefully spoon the beans on the toast, not to “drown your toast with beans.”


   Frankly most of this sounds pretty self-evident to me --- and I am not a great fan of Heinz Baked Beans which I, like a good Indian, often find too bland, even at breakfast time.


   And anyway, shouldn’t it be us who are asking some tough questions to manufacturers of Baked Beans, not listening to all this nonsense about lovingly spooning the beans on the bread?


   Let’s start with the obvious one: why do you call them Baked Beans when no baking is involved in their preparation?


   Yes, that’s correct, the cooking process consists of putting the beans in the can, adding the tomato sauce, sealing the can and cooking the beans afterwards, when they are already in the can, by applying heat which steams the inside of the can and cooks the beans.


   Besides, it might be worth pointing out that though the Brits love them so much, Baked Beans are not a British dish. They are, in fact, American and some theories about their invention suggest that this was a native American dish that was taken over (like the continent itself) by white people.


   The reason they could not have been British is because the beans themselves did not exist anywhere in Europe. They were among the foods discovered in the New World. The same species of bean eventually travelled the world under many guises: as pinto beans, kidney beans, haricot beans and our very own rajma beans which were probably planted in North India by the Raj. It is possible that the rajma bean was brought to India first by the Portuguese or the Spanish but as those Europeans never made it to North India, it was never planted or properly cultivated here till the Brits started the practice.


"The Heinz version is so pheeka that it only works as a side dish or as a snack if you serve it on toast."

   The relatively recent introduction of the bean to the old world make a hash of many origin stores for famous European dishes. For instance, the French say that cassoulet, their famous bean stew, predates the discovery of America which is impossible because the bean only reached France several decades after Europeans first found it in America. Even the North Indian claim that Rajma-chawal is an ancient delicacy, originating perhaps in Jammu, is nonsense. It is a relatively modern dish, based on a colonially introduced ingredient.


   Similarly Heinz only began canning its Baked Beans at the end of the 19th Century. The dish started out as a version of an American New England favourite in which beans were cooked with fatty pork and some sweeteners (sugar or molasses). In the US, Heinz canned a version that bore more resemblance to the New England dish but in the UK, the sweet content was reduced, the flavour profile was different and crucially, the pork element was eventually dropped altogether. The version Indian companies turn out is similar to the Heinz UK version and lacks the sweetness and the rich fattiness of pork. Frankly, it tastes a little pheeka and the texture is too unidimensional.


   For many years, I used to customise my Baked Beans because it was easy to do and took very little time. You start with the time-honoured Indian technique of browning onions and garlic. You add a little masala to taste. This doesn’t have to be an Indian masala, I often add Tex-Mex seasoning. You open the can of beans and drain out most of the sauce. You add the beans to the pan and if you like a wet feel to the dish, you add a few squirts of concentrated tomato puree.


   I usually finish with a little Tabasco or Sriracha because I like the chilli kick but that is entirely optional. If you are making it for guests and want it to seem a little fancy, scatter some coriander leaves on top. (This works even with the Tex-Mex seasoning).


   If you want a more substantial dish, then use pork: that was the original idea after all. You first put bacon or pancetta (lardons or slices chopped into small pieces) in the pan. When the bacon/pancetta has begun to render its fat, you add onion/garlic, tomatoes (or puree), and some spice mix. You add the drained beans at the very end. (You don’t want to bruise them or squash them.) You can cook some sausages separately – Italian spicy sausage, chorizo sausage (but not the salami version) or German garlic sausage; all easily available and manufactured in India now --- slice them and add them to the pan just before you add the beans.


   None of this accords with the five basic rules that Heinz has decreed but, in my view, it takes the dish back to its roots: it should be hearty and satisfying and capable of doing service as a main course. The Heinz version is so pheeka that it only works as a side dish or as a snack if you serve it on toast.


   So why, I hear you ask, have I stopped making my own variations on Baked Beans? Well, I liked the dish in the days when the only canned beans that were easily available were Baked Beans. These days, any good grocer will offer you the option of canned pinto beans, cannellini beans, kidney beans etc. It is much easier to open a can of one of those and to dispense with the thin tomato sauce that characterises Baked Beans.


   Once you have ready-to-use unflavoured beans, you can take the dish away from Heinz and go in whatever direction you like. Yes, the Indian masala version is easy to do but frankly it tastes a little like a Rajma made by an inexperienced cook. Tex-Mex is logical given that the beans originated from that region. But you can also use a basic herb-seasoning, normal European-style sausages, and bacon and go in the direction of a cassoulet.


   For me, that’s much more fun. We should leave boring old Baked Beans on white bread to white people. We can do much much better ourselves!



Posted On: 24 Oct 2023 10:50 AM
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