I take a walk nearly every day to do my grocery shopping. Yesterday at our local Whole Foods, my husband and I noticed tubs of fresh black-eyed peas on sale for $2.50. They were marketed as ‘Good Luck Blackeyes’ [sic] and I suppose that the packaging targeted New Year’s Day. Many people, particularly those with ties to the American South, say that eating black-eyed peas on January 1will bring you good luck for the rest of the year.
According to English professor and food historian Jessica Harris, black-eyed peas were cultivated in the Carolinas before the early 1700s. In a December 29, 2010 article in the New York Times, Professor Harris (that's how Jessica likes to be addressed!) saidthat no one is sure how black-eyed peas became associated with good luck at New Years.
On the other hand, there are those who support a Jewish origin. They say that the Sephardic Jews who began settling in Georgia in the 1730s introduced the practice of eating of black-eyed peas at New Year celebrations. This is plausible because black-eyed peas were part of the Jewish Rosh Hashana New Year tradition since ancient times. Sephardic Jews had ties to the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) and were thus within close proximity to Africa, the homeland of black-eyed peas.
There are also claims that it wasn’t until around the 1860s, during the American Civil War, that non-Jews picked up on the good luck pea tradition. Maybe it was then that ham hock and other porcine seasoning meats were added to pots of black-eyed peas. The result may have obscured the Jewish connection.
Regardless of how the belief got started, I am a sucker for symbolic foods, especially if they’ll boost my chances for good luck! So I bought a tub of the peas. I love the homey, rich black-eyed pea dishes of the American south, but wanted to make an Asian one that was a little lighter. After all, we plan to indulge on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day will be a time for taking things easy.
Black-eye Peas in Asian Cooking
Vietnamese cooks use black-eyed peas for sweet dessert soups (e.g., che dau trang) but I was looking for a savory. Indian cooks use black-eyed peas, called lobbia, in salad, rice, dal, and sweet preparations. Julie Sahni writes in Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking that black-eyed peas are regarded as a vegetarian delicacy in the western and southwestern parts of India. She says that green or fresh peas are preferred. (I had just that!)
The peas can be mixed with other legumes, such as chick-peas (garbanzo) and lima beans, or featured by itself. This refreshing recipe, adapted from 5 Spices, 50 Dishes by Ruta Kahate, is all about black-eyed peas. It’s perfect for New Year’s Day or any time of the year. If you eat black eyed peas year round, perhaps that guarantees prolonged prosperty?
The fresh black-eyed peas that I purchased were ‘quick cooking’ as they had been treated with a little baking soda. That’s what I read in the ingredient label. If your peas are not the fast cooking kind, simmer for longer than the 10 minutes below. Just keep adding water as needed.
If you don’t have fresh black-eyed peas, substitute a 10-ounce package (about 2 1/2 cups) of the frozen ones. Thaw them and then refresh them by simmering for a few minutes in water.
Spicy Black-Eyed Peas Salad
Enjoy the salad as a side with basmati rice and a curry. Or scoop it up with chappati or whole wheat tortillas. Add a yogurt raita, if you like.
One (11-ounce) container fresh black-eyed peas (2 cups)
1/4 cup chopped red onion
2 medium Roma tomatoes, cored and chopped (3/4 cup)
3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro leaves
About 1 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1/2 to 1 green Thai or Serrano chiles, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
About 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds
1. Rinse the peas, then put them into a medium pot. Add water to cover by 1/2 inch and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to simmer gently for 10 minutes, until tender. Drain and discard the cooking liquid, which is grey due to the color of the black eyes! Transfer to a bowl and set aside to cool completely, or cover and refrigerate overnight. You should have about 2 1/2 cups as the beans expand a bit during cooking.
2. Put the red onion in a strainer and rinse it under water to remove some of its harshness. Drain well before transferring to the bowl of cooked black-eyed peas. Add the tomatoes, cilantro, lime juice, ginger, chiles, cumin, cayenne, and salt. Toss well and taste, adding extra lime juice or salt as needed.
3. To add richness, heat the oil in a small skillet over high heat. Have a lid nearby. When the oil is very hot, drop in a mustard seed and it sizzles and pops immediately – add all the mustard seeds. Cover with the lid and give the skillet a few shakes to prevent the seeds from burning. After the popping subsides, pour the oil and seeds over the peas.
Toss well and set aside for about 30 minutes, or refrigerate overnight, to allow the flavors to develop. Give it a taste and make any flavor adjustments before serving. Enjoy at room temperature.
Note: I made the salad today and it was terrific. Overnight refrigeration may dull the tomato a tiny bit — like refrigerated fresh salsa. If you want, add the tomato on the day for a super-fresh flavor.
Do you have Asian ideas on how to prepare black-eyed peas? I've only mentioned Vietnamese and Indian ones here.