(Vigna unguiculata – Family Leguminosae)
Cowpea, southernpea, field pea, blackeye, black-eyed pea
There are so many varieties of cowpeas that to make generalizations about them just does not fit their wide range of colours, shapes, styles, and flavours.
Cowpeas originated in Africa, but soon spread to Europe, where they have been known since the classical era. They have also been known in Asia since ancient times.
In the 16th century, the Spanish took the cowpea to America, where it became a main foodcrop in Haiti.
The plant needs a hot climate; and, in the US, it will grow only in the south.
A native Australian cowpea (V. lanceolata) is of interest because it has both ordinary edible pods and underground ones like the peanut. It also has long, parsnip-like roots, which are not only very edible roasted, but also declared to be one of the best vegetables available to the Aborigines.
The cowpea is divided into those grown for seed, which are usually dried, and those grown for their immature pods. Those grown for seed are short plants with short pods and most often cultivated in Africa, India, and the US.
The pod peas are tall climbers, with exceptionally long pods called “yard-long beans” (see separately). These are favoured in southeast Asia, but are also cultivated in the West Indies.
The pods can be up to a foot long and hang straight down. A subspecies, cylindrica, that has short pods which point upwards, is cultivated in the tropics. All are now assigned to the same species.
In Nigeria, the dried cowpea seeds are second only to the peanut (groundnut) as a staple legume. In West Africa, the young shoots and leaves are eaten as a vegetable, while the young green pods are eaten like French beans; but it is the seeds which are the main food and seen in markets all over.
The seeds may be white, yellow, brown, or mottled; but it is the white that are considered the best. They are starchier, milder, and softer than the common beans and limas. Firm and nutty, they are closer to the texture of yard-long beans.
There are several groups of cowpeas:
Cream or Lady pea
types have slim, pale yellow-greenish pods, some dappled with mauve, which hold small peas without the apparent “eye”. The eye is the hilum or the point where the seed attaches to the pod. When cooked, these peas are almost crisp, but have a light fresh taste and colour.
Pinkeye purple hull
types have burgundy to green pods, some with marbled variations, that contain peas that vary from small to large and are a drab green to a pinkish-tan with rose-coloured eyes. They are more pronounced in flavour than common beans, but closer in texture to them than other cowpeas. They are a good all-purpose pea and can be used fresh or dried like a bean.
types have yellow-green pods that contain tightly packed, green to tan, small to large peas that have a brownish black eye at each hilum. Cooked, they taste similar to the yard long bean, but are tender and without sweetness. These medium-sized, light cream-coloured, oblong seeds are very noticeable, having a black circular “eye” on the curved inner side. They also have a distinct savour flavour and a light crunchy texture, going well with strong flavoured foods. Other versions of the blackeyed pea are Lady Peas, cream peas, crowder peas, and southern checker peas (which are half white and half black).
types have green to gray pods that are truly crowded with peas, so much so that they are misshapen. During cooking, they yield deep brown juices and develop a strong taste.