Mesquite: It's More Than Barbecue Wood, It's A Tree With Magic Beans : The Salt When an Austin neuroscientist-turned-baker dove deeply into a box of Peruvian mesquite flour on a lark, he found a forgotten, flavorful and nutritious bean that was once vital to Native Americans.
NPR logo Texas Baker Rekindles Interest In The Mysterious Mesquite Bean

Texas Baker Rekindles Interest In The Mysterious Mesquite Bean

Roasting mesquite beans brings out the flavors of chocolate, coconut and baking spices. Karen Hudes/for NPR hide caption

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Karen Hudes/for NPR

Roasting mesquite beans brings out the flavors of chocolate, coconut and baking spices.

Karen Hudes/for NPR

Despite a warning to wear rattlesnake shin guards when walking through the Hill Country, the only sound I hear is the ticking of grasshoppers, crickets and dragonflies on this 100-degree day in Spicewood, Texas.

I'm hunting mesquite trees, and they bite. Their branches, spiked with two-inch thorns, hold desert-colored, seed-hugging beans that rattle when they're ready to pick. If you break one open and put it in your mouth, it tastes lightly sweet.

"The hotter, the drier, the harsher the climate, the better the beans taste," says Austin baker Sandeep Gyawali, who's showing me where to find mesquite. He's on a mission to revive the long-overlooked bean, harvested from the tree that became famous for smoking Texas barbecue (and upping sales of potato chips).

Mesquite beans grow from the tree's feathery branches. This food was once important to indigenous people in Texas but is now largely overlooked. Karen Hudes/for NPR hide caption

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Karen Hudes/for NPR

Mesquite beans grow from the tree's feathery branches. This food was once important to indigenous people in Texas but is now largely overlooked.

Karen Hudes/for NPR

Most of Gyawali's beans come from ranches in South and West Texas, where the honey mesquite grows wild like a weed. He roasts the pods, then mills them into an aromatic flour that smells of cream, coconut and chocolate. It brings a subtle earthiness to loaves such as the dark-crusted Rouge de Bordeaux sourdough he bakes. He also blends superfine mesquite flour with a little salt into butter that looks like cajeta as it's whipped smooth. Spread it on bread and you get that rare thrill of tasting something completely new.

Historically significant food

While many Texans barely notice it now, the mesquite bean was once vital to indigenous peoples of Mexico and the Southwest, where the trees grow in abundance. Dr. Hermelinda Walking Woman, director of education for the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, grew up in the 1960s on a farm outside McAllen that was full of mesquite. "It was just very plentiful. You'd go out to the mesquite trees and you'd have these giant clusters of mesquite pods. ... It's been a big part of our history, of our tribe, that we would gather this and use it for food."

By the time Walking Woman was a kid, food traditions using mesquite were already fading. Yet she has vivid memories of collecting dried beans while the adults ground the pods into flour in a mortar. From there, the flour was mixed with cornmeal into hotcakes and a farina-like atole for breakfast. Dense with fiber and protein, the bean (whose name is rooted in an Aztec word, mizquitl) concentrates its sugar in the pulp between the pod's shell and the seeds.

"We, especially the children, also just sucked on the sweet pods as a treat," she adds. "Some have purple streaks going down them ... I used to say, 'Oh that's a sweet one, I'll grab that one.' "

Rediscovering old flavors and creating new ones

Mesquite flour stirred into butter has a unique sweet flavor, and is especially good on homemade bread. Karen Hudes/for NPR hide caption

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Karen Hudes/for NPR

Mesquite flour stirred into butter has a unique sweet flavor, and is especially good on homemade bread.

Karen Hudes/for NPR

Gyawali was drawn to that sweet bean, too. A neuroscientist-turned-baker who immigrated from Nepal to Chicago as a child, he moved to Austin seven years ago. He says that losing a sense of having a hometown early on taught him to "seek out what's unique about a place and how I can identify with that, and usually it's through food."

Gyawali first came across mesquite when he was working at the bakery and bar Easy Tiger. Slow Food Austin challenged him to make a bread with a mystery ingredient.

On the organization's page listing foods in danger of extinction, he found mesquite pod flour. "I'd never heard about that before, but I'd heard of mesquite, and mesquite sounds like Texas, so that kind of took me down a rabbit hole." He managed to find a box of mesquite flour, but was surprised to see it was imported from Peru.

The first time he baked with it, mixing it with wheat flour, Gyawali says, "It really smelled like baking spices, almost like I'd made a spiced holiday bread." The people he worked with "went crazy for it."

Later, while developing his own business, Miche Bread, he decided to focus on heritage grains. And every time he bought mesquite flour, he wondered why Texas didn't produce its own. Finally in 2016, he won a grant from the Austin Food & Wine Alliance to purchase a hammer mill to grind mesquite pods. He began sourcing them from around the state last summer.

He operates the machine at Barton Springs Mill, outside Austin. Over the course of 30 minutes, as the crop roasts in the oven, the scent changes from beans to ginger snap cookies to a toasted bagel with coffee. The mill's owner, James A. Brown, says mesquite has a "sweet complexity that's very appealing and hard to tack down."

Austin baker Sandeep Gyawali is on a mission to revive culinary interest in the mesquite bean. Karen Hudes/for NPR hide caption

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Karen Hudes/for NPR

Austin baker Sandeep Gyawali is on a mission to revive culinary interest in the mesquite bean.

Karen Hudes/for NPR

That's partly why it melds so well with other ingredients, and why the Texas Mesquite Movement, launched by Gyawali and built through his partnerships with other Austin makers, has been so fruitful.

At the new Brewer's Table restaurant, mesquite-buttered brioche holds together the fried chicken sandwich, which you could also dip in mesquite maple syrup. The ice cream shop Lick is making a seasonal roasted mesquite flavor with mesquite-infused cream and crumbled mesquite cookies; and craft chocolatier SRSLY will release 1,000 Mesquite Dirty White chocolate bars in October. Texas brewers have tapped at least six different mesquite beers, and distillers have started using the beans for fermenting and steeping. Gyawali prepares his own extract, too.

"Let's make mesquite our vanilla, right?" Gyawali says, giving a demo of how to steep and grind the beans at an Austin farmers market recently. There, he throws out ideas such as a mesquite barbecue rub, mesquite-baked ham or even the region's own mesquite-fed pig. He's also a fan of mesquite in cold brew. "It's kind of like our equivalent of the chicory coffee of New Orleans – it's Texas coffee."

The pairings do seem limitless, though Gyawali admits he's finally learned one big reason why there's no Texas industry around the mesquite bean. From the gathering to the grinding, "It's a pain." But, "If you want to talk about local, sustainable and delicious, this is it."

Still, it will be an education process. The human connection to mesquite as a food has been battered for centuries. The colonists' devastation of native tribes, Walking Woman notes, kept many of the survivors on the run and "broke a lot of the traditions that we had with regard to what we were doing and how we were getting our food."

Later, as cattle ranching expanded and spread thickets of mesquite through Texas (from cows eating the pods), ranchers came to revile the tree as an invasive species to be destroyed. Since its firewood had always been valued for cooking, that part was commercialized. Not all farmers still hate it, though; as one says, "The thorns make a good toothpick."

Future harvest challenges

Scientist and mesquite researcher Peter Felker, a partner in the flour importer Casa de Mesquite, says that attitudes about mesquite depend on the culture: "In Texas they're bulldozing, in Argentina they're planting." He believes that propagating the drought-resistant, nitrogen-fixing tree could help people living in arid regions of the world by improving the quality of their soil. And using straight, thornless varieties, mesquite could be developed into a lumber industry.

But he's skeptical about a Texas enterprise, mostly due to labor costs. "Without putting in plantations and having a mechanized harvest, I don't see how they're ever gonna do it."

Gyawali is taking a broader approach. Mesquite will be part of a bakery/cafe he's planning to open next year, but his reasons for focusing on mesquite go beyond the financial. "I'm trying to be more inspirational than a capitalist regarding this," he says. "Let's start with that individual who wants to do something with mesquite and has lots of it in their backyard, they can go pick a few hundred pounds in a season if they want. ... You take that and multiply it by 1,000 or 10,000, and then you have a movement. So let's think about it from that level, and the solution is right there."

Ideas about what to do with mesquite mirror the tree's complex structure, with its shrubby, gnarly bends. "The trunk splits in many ways, and that's kinda how to look at it," Gyawali says. "I want to see everyone using mesquite to make whatever the hell they want to make, you know? To really claim it as a resource. ... Like, everyone does it bootstrapping and very independently, which is one of the cores of Texas, right? You can do it yourself."

Karen Hudes has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, Extra Crispy, Tin House and The Awl, and formerly worked as a senior editor at Zagat.