What are Black-Eyed Peas?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Black-eyed peas or black-eyed beans are a subspecies of the cowpea and were first grown and relished in Asia. Introduction into Southeast Asia led to their cultivation in the West Indies, where they became very popular and made an indelible mark on the soul food tradition. Today you’ll find myriad recipes for these peas in Southern US cookbooks, where they are a staple, and additionally, an excellent source of protein.

Assorted beans, including black-eyed peas on the lower right.
Assorted beans, including black-eyed peas on the lower right.

The name black-eyed peas comes from the appearance of the legumes. They are normally white to yellow with a small black dot that could resemble a single eye. This extra bit of color does add visible appeal to the beans, and they can be a fantastic addition to many dishes. They are valued for both taste and nutritional value. In addition to a high protein content, these peas serve as an excellent source of calcium, a great choice if you are a vegan, and are also high in vitamin A and folic acid.

The growing of black-eyed peas serves another very important purpose in areas where land is used continually for farming. Many crops, like corn or cotton, deplete the soil of nitrogen. Black-eyed peas on the other hand, add nitrogen back to the soil, and are fantastic to grow during crop rotations. One of the first advocates of such rotation was the famous George Washington Carver, who studied plants to see which would best replenish the nitrogen in the soil. He strongly urged families, particularly African American farmers, to use black-eyed peas in alternate years so that all crops would produce better yields. This was an easy argument to make, since they were common food in the southern US.

To the north, black-eyed peas have never held the same popularity, and some merely dismissed them as useful when feeding cattle but not suitable for feeding people. This notion has gradually declined given the known nutritional value of the food. Yet it was a key factor in helping the besieged south survive food shortages during the Civil War. While Northern soldiers burned many crops, black-eyed peas weren’t considered worth the trouble and were usually let alone.

Northerners may not find many recipes for these legumes in cookbooks, so investing in a good Southern US cookbook can be a great way to get ideas for these legumes. Some traditional ways to prepare them include merely cooking them with a little bit of fatback or bacon, using them in other peas or beans recipes like red beans and rice, or baked beans. Black-eyed peas don’t have a distinctive flavor so they can easily be used in place of any other bean and are prepared in the same way.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I agree. I can always tell the difference.


You said black-eyed peas don't have a distinctive flavor, but I think they have a very distinctive flavor probably more than any other bean. I have mixed them with other beans 1:1 and you will usually taste the black eyed peas over the other beans. I know this to be true with black beans, and navy beans in particular.

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