What Are Black-Eyed Peas?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Black-eyed peas in a dish
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Black-eyed peas, a member of the legume family, have a pale cream color and a distinctive black spot resembling an eye. They are thought to have originated in North Africa, where they have been eaten for centuries, and were probably introduced to North America by Spanish explorers and enslaved people from Africa. They are now grown throughout the world and have become a much-loved food, especially in American Southern cooking, and with good reason: They are delicious, nutritious, easy to prepare, and come in a variety of forms. Read on to learn about the great little black-eyed pea, which might well become a favorite of yours too.

Fast Facts

  • Nutrition: Low in fat; high in carbs, protein, fiber, and nutrients
  • Shelf Life: Two to three-plus years; good bulk buy
  • Origin: Africa, but nowadays a staple of traditional Southern cooking
  • Taste: Dense and meaty, with a distinctive black spot
  • Substitute: Purple Hull Peas

What Are Black-Eyed Peas?

The black-eyed pea is a variety of the cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), which is a member of the legume, pea, or bean family. Besides the popular name "black-eyed pea," it is also known as "goat pea" and "southern pea," and the most common commercial variety in the United States is called the California Blackeye. But guess what? Technically, the black-eyed pea is not a pea at all.

Black-Eyed Peas vs. Green Peas

While both green peas and black-eyed peas belong to the same family, they belong to two different genera: Peas belong to the genus Pisum while black-eyed peas belong to Vigna. Plant biology aside, their appearance is obviously different: While peas are green and round, black-eyed peas are more oval in shape with a pale cream color and a black mark where the bean was attached to the pod. But what really distinguishes them is how they are used. Peas can be—and often are—eaten fresh out of the pod, or quickly boiled. They are also widely canned, freeze extremely well, and can be dried too, but dried peas are rarely seen these days.

Black-eyed peas, on the other hand, can also be eaten fresh out of the pod but they seldom are. You can find them precooked and canned, but they are most commonly found dried.

The most important difference, however, is in how they taste. Whether eaten raw or cooked, peas have a sweet taste and a thin skin, giving them a delicate consistency. Back-eyed peas are dense and meaty, with a rich earthy flavor that can stand up to big flavors, like smoked ham or barbecued ribs, and long cooking.

Varieties

The legume family is an extremely large one, and there are many varieties of white and whitish beans that can be found dried, fresh, canned, and frozen. But there is really only one black-eyed pea.

Black-Eyed Peas Uses

With their dense consistency and full, earthy flavor, black-eyed peas are used to make all kinds of dishes, including soups, salads, side dishes, stews, and casseroles. They can also be sprouted.

How to Cook With Black-Eyed Peas

Black-eyed peas, like most any other bean, can be used in many ways. They can be the central ingredient in a soup or side dish or a supporting character in a stew or casserole. They can be cooked, chilled, and dressed with olive oil and vinegar as a summer salad; mashed or pureed like potatoes, or sprouted.

What Do Black-Eyed Peas Taste Like?

Black-eyed peas taste like earthy white beans with a dense, creamy consistency.

Black-Eyed Peas Substitute

If necessary, you can substitute another type of bean for black-eyed peas—Pinkeye Purple Hull peas, also known as Southern Pink Lady peas, are another, lesser-known Southern staple and variety of cowpea would be an excellent choice. But these peas or other typically Southern varieties such as crowder peas or white acre peas are difficult to find. Other white bean varieties can come close to matching the flavor and consistency of black-eyed peas but will be missing their distinctive appearance and thus fall short of expectations, especially if being used in a traditional Southern dish such as hoppin' John.

Black-Eyed Peas Recipes

While black-eyed peas have close links to traditional Southern cuisine, they are as versatile as they are distinctive and can be used in many types of cooking.

Where to Buy Black-Eyed Peas

Dried or canned black-eyed peas can be found in most groceries or health food stores in the section featuring beans and rice. Another excellent source is online sites specializing in Southern cooking. Because dried black-eyed peas store extremely well, this is a great item to buy in large quantities or in bulk.

Storage

Stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, dried black-eyed peas (like most other dried beans and legumes) will keep well for two to three years or more.

Nutrition and Benefits

Black-eyed peas are an excellent source of protein, fiber, and other key micronutrients. One cup of black-eyed peas (about 2 servings) contains approximately 194 calories, 13 grams of protein, 11 grams of fiber, 35 grams of carbs, 88 percent DV folate, 50 percent DV copper, 23 percent DV iron, and 21 percent DV of both phosphorous and magnesium.