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How to cook with black-eyed peas, the soul food staple

Around the world, black-eyed peas have long been associated with good luck.
Background texture of black-eyed beans
Ozgur Coskun / Getty Images

Don’t you stare at me, you black-eyed pea, cowpea, slick bean with a slow pulse.

Why don’t you simmer down, in your bath of salt water?

Let your jacket slip, that protective cover you cloak yourself with each day.

Absorb the energy of love, patient contemplation of your journey from hard to soft, raw to ready, unprepared to fully equipped.

Let the flavors — spice, heat, sweet and salty infuse into you without distracting from what you are: an ancient pulse full of potential.

I was moved to write a short poem about cowpeas when preparing for an online cooking class teaching the traditional dish Red Red (a protein- and flavor-packed Ghanaian stew) — that is how much I love and respect this humble legume.

Red Red Vegan Bean Stew

What are black-eyed peas?

The black-eyed pea, a subspecies of the cowpea, is actually a bean — not a pea! A versatile legume, it's related to mung beans and grows in warm regions globally. The most common commercial variety of black-eyed peas, which are cream in color with small, circular, blackish-purple “eyes” where they were attached to their pods, are called California Blackeyes. They're great sources of complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and fiber, and can be canned, dried or picked young as green snap beans. They boast an earthy flavor and a soft yet firm texture that makes them an ideal addition to recipes from salads and stir-fries to grain bowls and soups.

The black-eyed pea is also known as the goat pea, California Blackeye or feijão fradinho.Gabriel Vergani / Getty Images

This summer crop is grown in the Caribbean, Australia, Asia, Europe and North, Central and South America, where they feed people and animals, and help cultivate soil, especially in dry or drought-prone regions. They also grow during periods when other plants don’t thrive, making them a crop that can support small-scale farmers.

The origins of black-eyed peas

Black-eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata) are native to Africa, where they have been popular since the Middle Ages. The U.S. Library of Congress states that they were cultivated since prehistoric times in China and India, and were "(b)rought to the West Indies from West Africa by slaves, by earliest records in 1674."

According to soul food scholar Adrian Miller, European slavers fed their enslaved people black-eyed peas during the Middle Passage, the infamous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, and in the Americas, planters originally fed them to the livestock and then fed them to the enslaved, too. Among "well-to-do whites," says Miller, they were considered a "poor person's food," but African Americans continued to enjoy the beans, making them into a "soul food staple."

Hoppin' John is pictured at Frogmore Restaurant in Boston on Aug. 26, 2015.Jonathan Wiggs / Boston Globe via Getty Images

Today, in the American South, black-eyed peas are a key ingredient the staple dish Hoppin' John (aka Carolina peas and rice), and eating them on New Year’s Day — a tradition that actually originated with Western Europeans — paired with greens (such as collards) is considered good luck: The peas symbolize coins and the greens symbolize paper money.

Traditional uses for black-eyed peas

Around the world, black-eyed peas have long been associated with good luck. For instance, in West Africa, a dish called ewa-Ibeji ("beans for twins") is cooked as a blessing for twins, and black-eyed peas are prepared for certain ceremonial occasions. Across the Atlantic, the legumes held onto their lucky reputation, and people of West African heritage used to carry them in order "to ward off harmful magic spells and the evil eye," according to Miller.

In terms of cooking, black-eyed peas are often prepared as a snack by pan-frying them into crispy beans or boiled, sautéed, or baked and added to dishes. Traditionally, once dried, they also can be soaked overnight in cold water to rejuvenate them.

In parts of West Africa, on Good Fridays, cowpeas and coconut custard are combined to make a traditional dish called frejon; in Nigeria, a popular dish of pounded and seasoned peas make up a pudding called moi moi; in Liberia, black-eyes peas are a common feature in many soups; in the American South, they have become well-known for their use in soup, fritters and other comfort foods; in Brazil, they're also used to make fritters called akara; and the beans are used commonly across India in various ways — in North India, for example, they're known as "lobia" and cooked like dal.

Punjabi lobia masala is a North Indian-style dish made with black-eyed peas.Subodh Sathe / Alamy Stock Photo

The health benefits of black-eyed peas

Black-eyed peas are packed with protein, complex carbohydrates and fiber — both dietary and prebiotic — making them helpful for digestion. Studies have shown they could help to reduce inflammation, blood pressure, blood lipid levels and risk of diabetes.

These beans are also a great source of calcium, iron, vitamin A, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese, folate and vitamin K, and contain antioxidants like flavonoids, which help the body fight disease. Plus, they're incredibly filling, thanks to the fiber, protein and slow-digesting carbohydrates.

Black-Eyed Pea Hummus

How to cook with black-eyed peas

Black-eyed peas can be eaten raw — like green peas or edamame — or dried and used for cooking, often after soaking to reduce cooking time. They can also be bought canned. For preparation, these beans can be boiled, steamed, mashed, fried into fritters, tossed into salads, mixed into rice dishes and simmered as flavoring for broth. Typically, they’re added to savory dishes including stews and curries, or steamed and seasoned as a side to accompany meats from pork to poultry to fish. In the U.S., they're often paired with collard greens and pork. Easily cooked on the stovetop in seasoned broth, this versatile bean can also be kept frozen for up to six months.

Before cooking dried black-eyed peas, you should ideally soak them overnight.Harald Walker / Alamy Stock Photo

Here's the simplest way to prepare black-eyed peas for cooking:

If using dried beans, ideally you should soak them overnight: Place the beans in a large bowl, cover with cold water and let stand at room temperature overnight. If this isn't possible, rinse and place beans in a large saucepan, cover with a good depth of water, add 1/2 teaspoon of potash or baking soda (which will help soften the beans faster while they are cooking), bring to a boil, then simmer for at least one hour or until the beans are tender enough to be squeezed easily between thumb and forefinger. Drain and set aside. If using a can of beans, just drain, rinse and drain again. Then use them as you would canned beans.