Tepary Beans: A Southwestern Heritage Food
This article was written by past Local Food Program Director, Steve Russell. If you’ve never had tepary beans, you are missing out on a deeply southwestern experience.
Tepary beans have a fantastic flavor and a texture that “pops” in your mouth. They contain more protein and fiber than traditional beans such as black or pinto, as well as a lower glycemic index. They are a ridiculously sustainable food to boot, requiring minimal water and maintenance for farmers and gardeners in the southwest region.
In case you were wondering: now (generally, the beginning of summer monsoon season) is the perfect time to plant tepary beans in the garden or on the farm.
The tepary bean has been cultivated for centuries by Native American tribes in the southwest region and have thus adapted exceptionally well to our high-heat and drought conditions. As a matter of fact, tepary beans thrive in our region, as they are just about the most drought- and heat-tolerant legume, period. They also fix nitrogen to the land they’re grown in, building up the fertility of our nitrogen-deficient desert soils. For gardeners and local farmers, this makes the tepary bean a fantastic cover crop, to keep land active during the dry season, and to protect and build the soil over the months of harsh Sonoran heat.
Though not very common in southwest cuisine these days, tepary beans have enjoyed a slow but steady return to notoriety over the last few years, thanks in part to the efforts of Native Seeds/SEARCH’s Gary Paul Nabham as well as local farms, like Ramona Farms, who have worked hard to bring this ancient food back to the forefront of our regional identity. Native American farmers, such as those from the Tohono O’odham Nation, have continued to cultivate this heritage bean over the years, and have helped to foster a wide array of cultivars, diverse in their size, color, growing habits and flavor.
Local First Arizona is proud to support our members that cultivate and utilize the tepary bean. You can purchase dry beans for food from Ramona Farms, seeds for growing from Native Seeds/SEARCH and Terroir Seeds, and other tepary bean products from Tepa Burger (whose vegetarian patties are to die for, by the way).
For inspiration, here’s a photo of the tepary beans I just planted poking their baby heads out in my own garden plot at Roosevelt Growhouse.