Real Food Encyclopedia | Pigeon Peas
Pigeon peas have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years, likely beginning in India and then spreading to Africa, Europe, the Americas and elsewhere around the world. They not only provide a valuable food resource, but are also used as animal feed and the shrub wood as firewood. Additionally, pigeon peas are a nitrogen-fixing crop and enrich the soil, making them ideal for intercropping.
Botanically, pigeon peas are part of the Fabaceae family, a perennial legume related to chickpeas, alfalfa and peanuts. Today the legume is grown commercially in many countries as a protein-rich crop, and is an important dietary staple around the world, especially in India, where the beans are dried, hulled, split and used as the popular ingredient dal. In India, they are also called arhar dal, split toor dal, red gram, thuvarai and thuvaram paruppu; in Jamaica they are known as tur or gungo peas; in Africa, the congo pea; and in Hawai’i, they are called pi nunu or pi pokoliko.
Fun Facts about Pigeon Peas:
- The reason pigeon peas are a staple food in so many countries is because they pack a powerful nutritional punch: one cup of cooked peas offers 11 grams of protein and more than 110 percent of the daily recommended intake of iron.
- The leaves, roots and fruit of the pigeon peas is used all over the world for medicinal purposes. In Malaysia and the Philippines, the leaves are used to treat coughs, abdominal troubles and diarrhea. In Java and India, the leaves are ground to a pulp and used as a treatment for sores, wounds and itches. The roots are used in China, as a sedative, expectorant, anthelmintic and vulnerary.
What to Look for When Buying Pigeon Peas
Fresh pigeon peas offer a nutty taste and crisp texture, similar to edamame. The young pods will be bright green, maturing to a dark brown-purplish color, with brown splotching or striations. When sold fresh, they are often referred to as green pigeon peas. Look for fresh pods with plump peas inside and strong green color. Avoid yellow or pale pods.
Dried pigeon peas are sold in several forms. Whole dried pigeon peas look similar to black eyed peas, with a light tan or beige skin, speckled with small brown spots. They are also sold with the skins removed, in which case, they will be green. And you can also find them split, as is the case with dal, where they will resemble split mung beans. As always, dried beans will taste most optimal within one to two years of harvest. If possible, source high-quality beans from a grower that provides a harvest date on their label.
You can also find canned or frozen green pigeon peas, often in grocery stores near large Hispanic or Caribbean communities.
Sustainability of Pigeon Peas
Pigeon peas are a very sustainable food source. The plant is very heat-tolerant, grows well in hot and humid climates, and tolerates drought well. It is an excellent source of organic nitrogen, increases organic soil matter and improves organic soil structure, making it a prime choice for cover cropping and interplanting. The plant can tolerate low fertility soils, and is often used in tropical and subtropical regions to protect soil, prevent soil erosion from monsoon rains, and in agroforestry, to provide shade and wind protection for other crops.
A benefit of using pigeon pea as a cover crop: once the pigeon pea crop is well established, it can help smother weed growth in the field and help maintain a weed-free field for the next crop, reducing the need for herbicides. However, early growth can be slow, and some commercial producers may spray in order to improve crop development. Additionally, when the crop is grown to the pod stage, it is known to attract a number of insect pests. The use of integrated pest management (IPM) systems, instead of pesticides, can be used to control these issues. To avoid possible exposure to toxic residue, buy organic pigeon peas when possible.
Small-scale producers grow the majority of pigeon peas globally, and despite high regional (depending on the area) and international market demand, they are generally exploited by middlemen and remain relatively poor. The market in African countries like Malawi, Mozambique and Benin is highly fragmented, and the highly volatile market, along with lack of market information and access, keeps most small scale producers from seeing real profits.
Peak season for fresh pigeon peas is during the late summer and fall months.
India produces the bulk supply of commercially grown pigeon peas, accounting for roughly 80 percent of global production. Central America and Eastern Africa are also commercial growers. Pigeon peas can be found throughout the Southern United States, Hawai’i and Puerto Rico.
Eating Pigeon Peas
If you purchase fresh green pigeon peas, keep them in the pod until you are ready to use them. To shell them, boil for five to seven minutes, transfer to an ice bath to chill, and then shell them. You can also keep the beans in the pods until they turn brown (they will dry inside), and then use them as dried beans (see below).
Keep peas refrigerated in a dry container and use within three to four days, watching for any color change of the pods. Pods that turn brown should be left to dry and be used as dried peas.
Fresh pigeon peas can be used similarly to fresh peas, in both raw and cooked preparations. Use them in salads, slaws or eaten raw out of hand.
The dried beans can be substituted for any other dried pea, bean or lentil. They should be soaked first, and then can be simmered, sauteed, steamed and fried. As they are often used in Indian, African and Caribbean dishes, their flavor pairs well with bright flavors and rich spices including ginger, citrus, turmeric, cilantro, cumin, curry, tomato, mango and onion. Traditionally they are used in rice and beans preparation, like in this Jamaican recipe; Carribean stews; Indian curries; and West African coconut milk simmers. They are commonly used to make Indian fritters; a classic Puerto Rican rice dish, also popular in Hawai’i; and a Fillipino stew made with pork, pigeon peas and unripe jackfruit .
You can also sprout pigeon peas by soaking them in fresh water; follow the same method as you would with other beans or seeds, waiting until peas have a root tail about 1/2-inch long. Additionally, pigeon peas can be ground into a gluten-free flour.
The easiest way to preserve fresh green pigeon peas is to let the pods dry out and use them as dried peas. You can also remove the peas from the shell (follow the method above) and freeze them — little is lost in terms of texture and flavor.
This sustainable superstar is also a very nutritious food. An excellent source of protein and iron, they also provide Vitamin A and B-6, calcium, magnesium, potassium and more minerals. Studies have shown that pigeon peas are most nutritious and easy to digest in their green stage, just before they become dry and lose their color.
Top photo by Brent Hofacker/Adobe Stock.