This post is about a bean that my friend gave me. It’s known by people in Chiapas as the “Nescafe Bean.”
Chiapas is a coffee-producing region, growing lots of the delicious stuff that the lucky few drink at our favorite cafés. But people there don’t drink that. Most of the coffee I’ve had in Mexico is, in fact, instant coffee. And in southern Mexico, the very people who cultivate our coffee drink a substitute: the Nescafe Bean.
My friend has gotten to know Chiapas through his work on a conservation project that aims to connect isolated patches of protected jungle by restoring corridors of land between them. It’s a good project, though he mentioned that the Mexican government is interested partly because it demonstrates official presence and investment in an area where historic neglect has contributed to the rise of the Zapatista movement.
We were discussing Chiapas (over a cup of coffee) when he went to his room and came back with a little white bean. Mucuna pruriens, I learned, is used as a cover crop to fix nitrate and keep fields healthy. Since the farmers can’t afford to keep the coffee they grow or buy their own, they harvest the beans from their cover crop and toast them until they’re black. Voilá: nescafe.
This reminds me of quinoa, the affordability and availability of which have diminished greatly in its native Peru and Bolivia since global demand exploded a few years ago. Slate has a good article on the pros and cons of the issue.
And, hey, looks like the U.N. has made 2013 the International Year of Quinoa!
Based on what my friend said about the taste and effect (or lack thereof) of the Nescafe Bean, I doubt we’ll be seeing an International Year of the Nescafe Bean anytime soon.