Why It Works
- Njahi are soaked in salted water overnight and cooked separately in plain water to give a tender-skinned bean that holds its shape.
- The coconut curry sauce gets its flavor from both the aromatic foundation as well as a bit of spice. Control the heat based with the chili pepper, opting to use or omit the seeds.
Njahi is one of the many bean varieties found in Kenya, where beans are a prominent feature of the cuisine. My mother, born and raised in the Kenyan Maasai lands, has often told me about how these beans were a staple in her school canteens, although she’s also noted that the quality of beans prepared at home and at school were worlds apart. The ones prepared at home were cooked and seasoned properly, whereas the ones at school were bland and off-putting; the recipe below isn’t for school cafeteria-style beans.
Njahi is quite resilient and can hold its shape even after hours of cooking, and improper preparation of the white-striped black beans can yield unpleasantly tough skins. As a result, they’re best prepared by soaking them in salted water overnight, rinsing them thoroughly in fresh water, then cooking them in unseasoned water. Once cooked, you can then add sauces and other flavorings. The overnight soak in salted water ensures that the beans don’t turn to mush while cooking, but it also helps to tenderize the tough skins; once the beans are fully cooked, I’ve found they become more receptive to the addition of other flavorings.
How you choose to season njahi depends on the region you’re from, but also on what you have in your pantry. For this recipe, I chose to simmer the cooked beans in a gently-spiced coconut sauce. Since I have an aversion to excessively dry foods, this recipe produces an ample amount of sauce, perfect for spooning over rice or being mopped up with a soft and flaky Kenyan chapati, a laminated flatbread similar to paratha.
- 2 cups (13 ounces; 370g) njahi beans (see note)
- Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 1/4 cup (60ml) neutral oil such as avocado oil, plus more if needed
- 1/2 medium red onion (5 ounces; 150g), finely diced
- 1/2 large green bell pepper (4 ounces; 110g), stemmed, seeded, and finely diced
- 6 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 4 scallions, ends trimmed and thinly sliced
- One 1-inch piece ginger (1/3 ounce; 10g), peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 3 tablespoons (40g) tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons garam masala
- 1 jalapeño, stemmed, seeded, and minced
- 1 teaspoon ground paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- One 13.5-ounce (400ml) can coconut milk
- 1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems
In a large bowl, combine the beans with 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Cover with about 4 cups (1L) water and soak at room temperature until beans swell, about 8 hours or overnight. Once the beans have soaked overnight, they will turn from black to dark brown.
Drain beans and rinse well under cold running water. Transfer the beans to a large pot or Dutch oven, and cover with at least 2 inches fresh water. Set over high heat and bring to a boil. Cook the beans at a hard boil for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender, 1 1/2 to 4 hours (our tests revealed a wide range of cooking times for the njahi beans, likely dependent on source and age). Skim any scum that accumulates on the surface. Keep an eye on the water level, adding more water if it gets too low.
Strain beans, reserving at least 2 cups (475ml) of the cooking liquid. Lightly wash pot.
In the same pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat until fragrant and shimmering. Add the onions and bell pepper and cook, stirring, until the onions have softened, about 4 minutes.
Add the garlic, scallions, ginger, and cumin seeds and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes.
Stir in the tomato paste, garam masala, jalapeño, paprika, ground turmeric, and 1 teaspoon salt, and cook until the tomato paste darkens, about 2 minutes.
Slowly stir in the coconut milk until well combined. Add the cooked beans and 1 cup (235ml) of the reserved cooking liquid. Season generously with salt. Bring to a simmer, lowering heat to maintain simmer, and cook, uncovered, until beans are suspended in a creamy sauce, 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Remove from heat, stir in cilantro, and serve.
Njahi can be purchased online or at specialty grocery. If you can't find njahi beans, you can substitute black beans, but reduce the bean cooking liquid added in Step 7 to 1/2 cup (120ml), adding additional bean cooking liquid a few tablespoons at a time only if the stew becomes too thick (this is because black beans can produce a thinner broth than njahi beans, and thus usually require less liquid to reach the final creamy consistency).