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What is a Pigeon Pea?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 16, 2024
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The pigeon pea, also called the Congo or Gunga pea, is a widely grown legume with a variety of uses. It is considered an environmentally beneficial plant as it can enrich soil. Although it can grow in any warm climate, it is particularly popular throughout tropical regions.

Experts believe that varieties of the pigeon pea have been cultivated for at least 3,000 years in Asia and India. At some point, the crop became popular throughout East Africa and eventually to the Caribbean islands, probably through the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. As a cuisine, the peas are popular in all of these areas, although they are most often described as a Caribbean or even a Cajun delicacy.

These peas are easy to grow in areas with abundant sun and little frost. They tolerate most soils and can survive with limited water, although they perform better with heartier environments. The plant is somewhat short lived, usually lasting about 5 years. Depending on the exact species, the pea can be grown as a shrub or tamed into a tree-like shape. Harvesting begins approximately five to eight months after planting.

The flavor of pigeon peas is often described as nutty, like a rich grain. In India, they are blended with lentils to make daal, a popular soup-like curry. They are known throughout the West Indies in combination with rice or other grains, and usually served highly spiced. African cuisines often prepare them with a coconut broth, often using hot peppers to add a strong bite to the dish.

For food purposes, the peas are usually found dried, canned or ground for flour. They are easiest to find canned and will likely be in most large grocery stores or specialty Indian and Latin shops. Although there are many varieties grown, store-bought options will often be limited to green, white, or black colors.

Other than their many culinary uses, the plants can serve several other functions. Their low, shrubby appearance makes them an excellent low hedge or windbreak. They are extremely beneficial when planted near young fruit trees or other plants in need of nitrogen, as they enrich the soil with it. In some places, the stems of the plant are used to make thatch or fencing materials. They also make excellent fodder for livestock such as chickens.

Some traditional Indian and Asian medicine practices believe pigeon peas to have medicinal value. They are used to treat stomach problems and even cancer. Traditional medicine practitioners believe they can relieve swelling of the internal organs.

Although the pigeon pea is not well known in the United States, it remains one of the most popular bean crops in the world. Fans of Puerto Rican or African cuisine will find that they are a familiar item in cooking and on menus. With the constant expansion of appreciation for different flavors throughout the world, it seems likely that these peas will become better known to many people in the future.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for DelightedCooking. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By ilopez — On Mar 12, 2015

Does anyone know where I can buy seeds for black pigeon peas? My mother would love to plant some.

By anon303187 — On Nov 13, 2012

In lancashire, (UK) pigeon peas or parched peas are a classic dish. they are eaten on their own with salt and pepper or with a hotpot, red cabbage. Just soak them and boil in a little chicken stock. Brilliant.

By anon279695 — On Jul 13, 2012

Where can I get a couple/few pigeon pea seeds? --Sandi

By anon275024 — On Jun 15, 2012

Unlocking the pigeon pea genome is seen as a major advancement in genetically modified crops, and is discussed online.

By anon253802 — On Mar 10, 2012

Does anyone know where I can buy dried, black pigeon peas?

By anon152235 — On Feb 13, 2011

i live in the florida panhandle. My mom gave me some seeds and i planted several of them. They grew quickly and were quite attractive! I waited until the pods were dried out and shelled them and placed them in glass jars for use later. How easy is that? They come back after frost or else they "self seed". Easy to grow!

By anon144081 — On Jan 18, 2011

I just threw some in from a can into my cooked rice and are heating them through.

By anon139713 — On Jan 05, 2011

Where can we buy pigeon peas?

By anon128172 — On Nov 18, 2010

I live in southwest Florida and was given a pigeon pea plant cutting. It sat in a pot for several months and I finally planted it. Now, it is well over 12 feet tall, much bigger than the mother plant and I am experiencing its first crop. It's loaded with pea pods and I have no idea when to harvest them but will figure it out.

It's a pretty mini tree and will take a baby and plant it where it can truly grow to its heart's content! Looking forward to eating them!

By anon83332 — On May 10, 2010

Several years ago the local grocery was discounting some food that was not selling and so I bought four pounds of pigeon peas.

Two months ago I had a bad concussion with some minor brain injury and I continue with the symptoms. Poking around the cupboard today I found the peas and read in your article that they can quell swelling of the internal organs! Life has its own way. Maybe this is just what "the doctor" had in mind.

By anon72120 — On Mar 21, 2010

I looked up pigeon peas because I am going to a wedding in Anguilla soon and on one of the activities planned they will be serving pigeon peas and rice. We grow purple hull and also zipper cream peas here in Texas. It will be interesting to see how they taste.

By anon62950 — On Jan 29, 2010

i got a bag of pigeon peas given to me and just cooked them up with some hot italian sausage and chili spices and it was awesome.

By anon54400 — On Nov 30, 2009

I am happy to read about pigeon peas because i have been wanting to know where it can grow. Kindly post something on its nutritional value to help us know exactly what we are getting from this precious pea. Thank you.

By anon26059 — On Feb 07, 2009

I just want to say thanks. I have been trying to find some better information on pigeon peas so I can get the right ones for a Puerto Rican dish. The other places I saw didn't give me enough info to realize I needed whole pigeon peas, not the toor dal I use for Indian dishes.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis


With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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