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All About the Ice Cream Bean

Nick Musica
Published Nov 09, 2021. Read time: 3 mins

I scream, you scream, we all scream for… inga beans?

The remixed rhyme might sound a bit strange, but you might change your tune too, once you give these legumes a try.

What are Inga Beans?

Proving once again that her sense of humor knows no bounds, Mother Nature has packed all the vanilla ice cream flavor any dessert fan could ask for into one of the least suspecting vessels: Something that resembles more a side-eyeable side-dish than something sensational. 

Inga beans admittedly aren’t pretty. They look a bit like a string bean in need of some ironing. Or maybe a star fruit that stretched its legs a little too far. In other words, they come wrapped up in an off-green vessel that can stretch as far as a foot long, with five or six distinct creases running down its sides.

And the vanilla ice cream bean is no less strange-looking on the inside. Cracking their case will reveal a row of snowy white pom-poms wrapped around hard, black seeds. Thankfully, someone somewhere was strange (or desperate) enough to bite into these fluffs, and that person was rewarded with the taste of the original vanilla bean.

Where Do Inga Beans Come From?

We will likely never know who that lucky first person was, but we can take a good guess where they lived.

Inga beans originally sprouted up around the equator, with their natural territory stretching from Mexico down through Central America and into the Amazon rainforest. Unlike their man-made dessert namesake, ice cream bean trees are sensitive to frost, so instead of the freezer, they need tons of sun to thrive.

While that territory has grown a bit since the beans picked up in popularity, inga beans are still essentially a specialty produce product, mainly grown along the earth’s sun belt. And like their vanilla ice cream brethren, the trees are truly the gift that keeps giving.

In many South American and Central American countries, inga bean trees are grown not just for their delectable crop but for their generous canopy, offering plenty of shade for more sun-sensitive plants like coffee, tea, and cacao to come into bloom. 

What Does the Ice Cream Bean Taste Like? 

With this one, there’s no false advertisement. What ice cream beans taste like is all in the name.

Namely: Ice cream. Vanilla ice cream, to be exact.

Those brave enough to open the strange oblong bean pod might be thrown off at first by the unexpected appearance of fluffy white beans. But the white hairs aren’t a sign of rot or other nefarious natural mechanisms. 

In fact, the cottony pulp is where the flavor lives. Aside from vanilla ice cream, fans liken the palette to cherimoya, sometimes with a warm hint of cinnamon spice. And texturally, the pulp delivers as well, melting into a perfectly spongey, delicate sensation in the mouth.

Underneath is a hard, black bean which is far less pleasant to eat – unless they’re cooked. Heating those unassuming legumes up will get you something reminiscent of lima beans or garbanzo beans, officially making the inga bean nature’s greatest two-for-one deal.

How Do You Eat Ice Cream Beans?

Foreign fruits can be intimidating to try, but they’re almost always worth the effort, and that goes double for the ice cream bean.

The cottony pulp is especially easy to eat – all you have to do is dig in! You can chew the flesh right off the bean or use a paring knife, but it’s best to enjoy the ice cream flavor fresh. 

On the other hands, the beans themselves should never be eaten raw. But luckily, there’s no shortage of ways to prepare them. Ice cream beans can be boiled, baked, or roasted to get rid of their bitter taste and toxicity, then enjoyed in any number of dishes that require a yummy, meaty legume that can be flavored in any number of directions.

Still, ice cream beans may save their best trick for last. The legumes are legendary in one of their home states, Colombia, where they’re noted not just for their luscious taste, but their medicinal magic.

Folk medicine recipes there use the bean in a concoction that’s noted for its anti-diarrheal benefits. And the hard, black beans are also fermented and turned into a special alcoholic mixture that’s brewed on certain holidays and holy days.

With its gymnastic flexibility, inga beans truly are the soup-to-nuts (or, beans-to-ice cream) fruit of the natural world.

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