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.