Real Food Encyclopedia | Peas

Peas are a type of legume native to the Middle East, specifically to the area around what is now Turkey and IraqAccording to scientists, domestication of wild pea plants probably began with the dawn of agriculture itself, with carbonized pea remains showing up in Neolithic archeological sites in Turkey and Iraq (around 7,000 to 6,000 BCE), where they were likely companion plants to early-domesticated forms of wheat and barley.

From the Middle East, the legume spread rapidly to Europe. These early forms of pea, now called field peas, were probably cultivated to be eaten like a legume (that is, dried). According to food historian Alan Davidson, the first finding of the garden pea (mostly grown to be eaten fresh, rather than dried — although both field and garden peas were eaten dried) comes from Bronze Age archeological remains in Switzerland, around 3,000 BCE. The ancient Greeks and Romans also cultivated the garden pea, and from these areas the plant spread to India and China. Davidson notes that the pea was an important source of food for peasants in the Middle Ages, providing protein and other nutrients in lean times. Italian Catherine di Medici, wife of French King Henry II, is credited with introducing peas (among other innovations, like the fork and the artichoke to 16th century France, where they quickly became a food fad.

According to “The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink,” Christopher Columbus purportedly brought peas to the West Indies on his infamous 1492 voyage; by the early 17th century, peas were cultivated in the early American settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. Plant breeder Calvin Lamborn developed the “sugar snap” variety in 1979 by crossing garden peas with snow peas.

<<View All Real Food Encyclopedia Entries

Fun Facts about Peas:

  • Pea plants apparently communicate with one another. Yup, stressed-out peas communicate their discomfort to other pea plants around them, which make the peas on the receiving end freak out, too.
  • Peas were key to the creation of the modern science of genetics: Gregor Mendel, an Austro-Hungarian monk, conducted the very first experiments on the inheritance of traits in pea plants, which lead to the formation his theory of inheritance, which basically forms the basis of all of genetics.
  • According to historians at Monticello, home of avid gardener Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and his neighbors had a yearly contest to see whose peas would be harvested first. Jefferson almost always lost.

What to Look for When Buying Peas

Garden peas come in a pretty wide range of sizes: the smallest, called “petit pois” (“little peas” in French) are the sweetest and most tender, while larger garden peas tend to be a bit starchier. Garden peas are usually bright green, but they also come in yellow and purple varieties. Sugar snaps have been bred to have a thicker pod wall; they are crunchier and juicier than their snow pea cousins, which have flatter, thinner, more flexible pods and minimal seed (pea) development.

When shopping for garden peas, look for pods that are plump and bright green, with no wilted or brown spots. Sugar snaps should be plump and crisp (they should “snap” when you break one in half); floppy sugar snaps are a no-go. Snow peas should be bright green and pliable, with no wilty spots.

Pea shoots (or sprouts) are very young pea plants; they should also be bright green. Pass on wilted shoots. Pea tendrils are slightly more mature than pea shoots; they include pea leaves and the delicate, beautiful little tendrils that the pea plants use to climb. The younger the better; older, more mature pea tendrils (which will have thicker stems and larger leaves, usually) tend to get a bit tough (This is okay if you’re going to sauté or braise them, but sort of choke-inducing if you’re planning on eating them raw).

Sustainability of Peas

Frozen peas make an appearance at number 43 on the latest Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, due to a possible plethora of pesticides used on conventionally grown peas (most of which end up frozen). Snap peas show up not once, but twice on the list — domestic snap peas at number 29 and imported at number 14 (the lower the number, the more pesticide residues). If you’re concerned about pesticides, go for fresh peas in the pod from your local farmer (or fresh sugar snaps or snow peas) and be sure to ask your farmer about his/her growing practices.

Seasonal Food Guide

Pea Seasonality

Garden peas, sugar snaps and snow peas are all spring crops, available in most parts of the US starting in April. Pea season may extend all the way to June or July in cooler areas. Pea sprouts and pea tendrils are usually the very first part of the pea plant to show up at the market.

Peas and Geography

China, India, the UK and the US lead the world in garden pea growing, while Canada and Russia grow the most dried peas.

Eating Peas

Storing Fresh Peas

Fresh peas in the pod will keep for at least a week in the produce drawer of your refrigerator; even after a longer period of time, when the pods look a little gnarly, the peas inside are usually okay. (They will get starchier and less sweet the longer you wait to cook them, though.) Snow peas and sugar snaps will each keep for about a week in the refrigerator, too. Pea shoots and pea tendrils are much more delicate — use them within a couple days, max. Wrap them in a damp paper towel and stick in an open zip top bag to store them.

Cooking with Peas

Pro tip: 

  • Like many good things in life, garden peas take some serious elbow grease to get them out of those pesky pods. Here’s a great tutorial on how to shell peas from the “Chocolate and Zucchini” food site. If that fails, you can always get your dog to shell your peas for you.

All parts of the pea plant are edible — from the shoots, tendrils and leaves, flowers, pods and, of course, the seeds (the peas themselves). So remarkably versatile, the various varieties of our friend the pea, including garden peas, sugar snap peas, snow peas and dried peas, each work their own little bit of magic in the kitchen.

Natural partners with garden peas and sugar snaps include mint, butter, cream, bacon and prosciutto, lettuce (try this pea and lettuce braise by Jamie Oliver), onions (especially spring onions) and mushrooms, especially their spring-y counterparts, morels. (This braised pea, morel and fiddleheads recipe by Bill Telepan is great!) Snow peas and sugar snaps are at home in stir-fries, pairing beautifully with garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce; sugar snaps are also pretty excellent raw. Pea shoots and tendrils can be eaten like a green — braised in a little bit of liquid, or sautéed, or tossed, raw, into salads. Or made into pea shoot pesto. Even garden pea pods don’t have to be tossed into the compost bin: make them into pea pod soup. Garden peas are also pretty popular in South Asian cuisine — one of the most famous (and delicious) is the Punjabi aloo matar (peas and potatoes).

Dried peas (split peas) are mostly made into porridges and soups — they tend to break down quite a bit when cooked. Split pea soup is one of my favorite winter soups; it’s common to chuck a ham hock or other pork-y goodness in with the peas while the soup cooks.

Cooking with Less Waste

Preserving Peas

Pickle your peas! Here are pickled sugar snapspickled garden peas and pickled snow peas. Canned peas turn to mush, but you can do it. But really, the very best way to preserve garden peas, sugar snaps and snow peas are to freeze them — little is lost in terms of texture and flavor. Here’s how you do it.

Pea Nutrition

Every variety of pea is really good for you. They sort of combine the nutritional benefits of veggies with the good stuff in legumes. Garden peas are higher in calories than most other veggies and are rich in fiber and protein. They also have huge amounts of Vitamins C, A, K and folate, and are high in manganese, iron, zinc and magnesium. They even contain a little bit of calcium. Dried peas (aka split peas) have even more protein and fiber than fresh peas, and contain more folate and potassium than fresh (but much less Vitamins A, C and K). Snow peas and sugar snaps have a crazy amount of Vitamin C — just one cup provides you with 128 percent of your daily Vitamin C needs. They’re also super high in Vitamins A and K and are good sources of iron and Vitamin B6.