Pigeon Peas: History, Nutrition, and Uses

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Pigeon peas are a legume native to the Caribbean and Latin America. They’re grown mostly for their pods, which are used in soups and stews. But what are they exactly? And how do they differ from other legumes?

In this article, I’ll look at everything you need to know about pigeon peas, including their history, health benefits, and how to cook them.

What are Pigeon Peas

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What Are Pigeon Peas?

Perennial Legumes in the Fabaceae Family

Pigeon peas, also known as Cajanus cajan, are a type of perennial legume that belongs to the Fabaceae family. They are native to old and cultivated tropical and semitropical regions and are commonly consumed in South and Southeast Asian, Latin American, and African cuisines. Pigeon peas originated thousands of years ago and have since grown to become an important food source for people all over the world.

Propagation and Cultivation

Pigeon peas are propagated especially in West Africa, Congo, and India. They come in a variety of colors, including red, and are easy to grow. They require far fewer ecological resources than corn and are perfect for permaculturists who are trying to grow food in less-than-ideal conditions. Pigeon peas appreciate a little pruning and will produce a wide array of tasty branches that can be used for fodder. They are also useful for breaking windbreaks and are impressive sporting multicolored blooms ahead of their mottled pods.

Nutrition and Flavor

Pigeon peas are a great source of protein and fiber, making them a healthy addition to any diet. They are also rich in vitamins and minerals, including iron, potassium, and magnesium. Pigeon peas have a unique flavor that is often described as nutty and earthy. They are a great addition to soups, stews, and curries, and can be used in place of other vegetables like lettuce or broccoli.

Stocking Your Pantry with Pigeon Peas

Pigeon peas are a versatile ingredient that can be used in a variety of dishes. They are often used in Latin American and Caribbean cuisine, where they are a staple in rice and bean dishes. Pigeon peas can be purchased dried or canned and are a great addition to any pantry. They are easy to cook and can be used in a variety of recipes, including soups, stews, and curries.

Ecological Benefits

Pigeon peas are an environmentally conscious choice for gardeners who are trying to reduce their impact on the planet. They are a nitrogen-fixing crop, which means they can help to replenish depleted soil. Pigeon peas also attract beneficial insects, including bees, which can help to pollinate other plants in your garden. They are particularly useful for farmers who are trying to grow food in areas with poor soil quality.



Pigeon peas, also referred to as Jamaican gungo peas, are small to medium-sized beans that range in color from completely purple to a display of purple and green. The inner seed is lighter in color, with a goldenrod shade. When fresh, the pod is crisp and develops a crispy texture when cooked.


Pigeon peas are an excellent source of protein and additionally provide phosphorous. Studies have shown that the bean loses none of its nutritious value during digestion. In India, it is believed to be helpful in the treatment of diarrhea and dysentery. The paste and juice of the bean are utilized to remove stains from stainless steel.


Pigeon peas can be eaten raw when immature, but they need to be shelled first. The pod can also be soaked for a few hours or overnight prior to cooking. They can be steamed or cooked in a pot on high for 30 minutes until ready. Listed below are ways pigeon peas can be utilized:

  • Eaten as a snack
  • Cooked in stews or curries
  • Added to rice dishes
  • Used in soups
  • Pureed into dips or spreads

Flavor Pairings

Pigeon peas have a mild, nutty flavor that pairs well with citrus, coconut, and pork. Abi Cowell, a Jamaican chef, considers pigeon peas a staple in Indian and African cuisine.

Etymology and Other Names

Origins of the Term “Pigeon Pea”

The pigeon pea is commonly referred to by many names, including Congo pea, Angola pea, red gram, no-eye pea, and gungo pea. The term “pigeon pea” originates from the historical association of the pulse with pigeon rearing in the African continent. The pea was used as a fodder for pigeons, and its presence in the cultivation of the birds led to its name.

Other Names for Pigeon Pea

Apart from the names mentioned above, the pigeon pea has other names in different regions of the world. Some of these names include:

  • Toor dal in India
  • Kadios in the Philippines
  • Gandule bean in Puerto Rico
  • Pois d’Angole in French
  • Fio-fio in Brazil

Utilization of Pigeon Pea in English

The term “pigeon pea” is commonly used in English-speaking countries, but it is not exclusive. In the United States, the term “gandule bean” is more commonly used in Puerto Rican cuisine. In the United Kingdom, the term “red gram” is used in Indian cuisine.

History and Origin of Pigeon Peas

Debate on the Origin of Pigeon Peas

The history of pigeon peas is not entirely known, and there is a debate among geographical groups claiming the origin of the plant. However, it is assumed that pigeon peas were carried by traders and spread throughout the world. Some of the earliest evidence of pigeon peas remains discovered in archaeological finds dating back to 3000 BCE in the border area of Sanganakallu and Kalaburagi in India.

Domestication and Spread of Pigeon Peas

Pigeon peas were presumptively domesticated in the peninsular region of India, where the wild form of the plant, Cajanus scarabaeoides, occurs. The plant is deciduous and occurs in the dry regions of India. The earliest evidence of the utilization of pigeon peas in India dates back to the Neolithic period, around 2000 BCE. The plant was also found in the Bronze Age site of Tuljapur in Maharashtra, India.

The trade allowed the exchange of resources and agricultural practices, and pigeon peas were spread throughout the world. The ancient Egyptians used pigeon peas, and the seeds were discovered in the tombs of pharaohs. It is believed that pigeon peas spread to the Americas through the slave trade and were introduced by James Macrae in the 1700s. The plant was naturalized and began to gain popularity among the Filipino and Puerto Rican communities who began to emigrate to the American territories to work on sugarcane plantations.

Pigeon Peas in Modern Times

Today, pigeon peas are consumed worldwide and are popularized in many cuisines. The plant is still cultivated and consumed in India, Africa, and the Caribbean. The genetic diversity of pigeon peas is divided into two primary groups, the Cajanifolia group, and the Cajanus cajan group. The latter is further divided into two major groups, the Alphonne and the de Cadolie.

Fun fact: The botanical inscription of pigeon peas was transcribed in Arabic by Hendrik van Rheede in the 17th century.


Rich in nutrients

Pigeon peas are a great source of nutrients, including:

  • Protein: One cup of boiled pigeon peas contains about 11 grams of protein, making it a great plant-based protein source.
  • Fiber: One cup of boiled pigeon peas contains about 9 grams of fiber, which is important for digestive health.
  • Vitamins and minerals: Pigeon peas are a good source of folate, iron, magnesium, and potassium.

Low in fat and calories

Pigeon peas are low in fat and calories, making them a great addition to a healthy diet. One cup of boiled pigeon peas contains about:

  • 170 calories
  • 1 gram of fat
  • 31 grams of carbohydrates
  • 9 grams of fiber
  • 11 grams of protein

Sources of pigeon peas

Pigeon peas are widely available in Latin American, African, and Asian markets. They can also be found in some specialty stores and online retailers. The USDA reports that one cup of boiled pigeon peas contains about:

  • 170 calories
  • 1 gram of fat
  • 31 grams of carbohydrates
  • 9 grams of fiber
  • 11 grams of protein


Geographical Distribution

Pigeon peas are a major crop in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. They are commonly grown in rainfed agriculture in semiarid areas as the main or sole crop or intermixed with other crops such as sorghum, pearl millet, and peanuts. Pigeon peas are capable of symbiosis with bacteria associated with their roots, which enriches the soils with symbiotic nitrogen. This makes them a suitable crop for marginal lands.

Modern Cultivation

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has aimed to promote pigeon peas as a nutritious and alternative crop to failing consortium crops. The institute has developed varieties of pigeon peas, including dwarf varieties that can be harvested instead of complete plants. These varieties have considerably increased yields, with some capable of producing up to 2,000 kilograms per hectare.

John’s Contribution

John, a botanist and politician from Trinidad, developed a variety of pigeon peas that yields large pods and is a heavy yielding perennial. This variety is naturalized in Mozambique and Uganda and accounts for a total area of 2,000 hectares. The diversity of pigeon peas contributes to the number of hectares they are grown on, with the cha and das caldeiras on the island of Fogo being a major growing area in the world.

In conclusion, pigeon peas are a versatile crop that can be easily grown in a variety of parts of the world. They have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that enriches the soil with nitrogen, making them a suitable crop for marginal lands. Traditional cultivation methods such as multiple cropping and intercropping are still commonly used, but modern methods have been developed to increase yields. John’s contribution to the development of pigeon pea varieties has greatly increased yields and made them a more viable crop for farmers.

How to Grow Pigeon Peas

Choosing the Right Place to Grow Pigeon Peas

When considering where to grow pigeon peas, it’s important to keep in mind that they are tough plants that can survive in poor soil and with little care. However, to get the best yields and healthier plants, you need to provide them with an ideal growing environment. Here are some tips for choosing the right place to grow pigeon peas:

  • Pigeon peas need full sun, so choose an area that gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day.
  • The soil should be free-draining and have a pH between 5.5 and 7.5. Pigeon peas can tolerate slightly alkaline soil, but they don’t conduct well in acidic soil.
  • Avoid areas with competing plants, as pigeon peas can spread vigorously and pick up overabundance of nutrients from other plants.
  • Pigeon peas are grown in USDA hardiness zones 9-11, but they can be grown in other zones as an annual.

Starting Pigeon Peas from Seed

Pigeon peas are usually started from seed, which takes about a month to sprout. Here’s how to start pigeon peas from seed:

  • Soak the seeds in water for 24 hours before planting to help them sprout more easily.
  • Plant the seeds about an inch deep in fine soil.
  • Water the seeds and keep the soil moist, but not waterlogged.
  • Pigeon peas can be grown in pots or directly in the ground.

Caring for Pigeon Peas

Once your pigeon peas have sprouted, they require little care. Here are some tips for caring for pigeon peas:

  • Water the plants regularly, especially during the growing season.
  • Provide supplemental fertilizer if the foliage starts to look yellow or if the plants are not producing as much as they should.
  • Pigeon peas can grow up to 10 feet tall, so make sure to provide support for the plants.
  • Pigeon peas can be harvested when the pods turn brown and dry, usually around 4-5 months after planting.

Growing pigeon peas is easy and rewarding. With a little care, you can produce an abundance of nutritious peas that are perfect for soups, stews, and curries.


Culinary Uses

Pigeon peas, also known as feijão, guandú, or Congo bean, are a versatile crop that can be utilized in a variety of different ways. Here are some of the most common culinary uses for pigeon peas:

  • Pigeon peas can be substituted for any bean in most recipes, including soups, stews, and salads.
  • They can be soaked and steamed, then combined with other ingredients to make slaws, dips, and spreads.
  • Pigeon peas are favored by nutritionists because they are an essential part of a balanced diet and are a good source of protein for vegetarians.
  • They can be sprouted, which enhances their digestibility and reduces the amount of indigestible sugars that remain in the bean.
  • In Brazil, pigeon peas are commonly used to make a dish called “arroz com feijão verde,” which is a combination of rice and verdean pigeon peas.
  • In Kenya and other parts of East Africa, pigeon peas are utilized in a dish called “mbaazi na maharage,” which is usually served with chapati or ugali.
  • In Enugu and other parts of the Igbo-speaking regions of Nigeria, pigeon peas are known as “ẹchịcha” or “achịcha” and are often used in palm oil-based soups.
  • In India and other parts of the Indian subcontinent, pigeon peas are an important source of protein and are commonly used as a primary accompaniment to roti.
  • In the Western Visayas region of the Philippines, pigeon peas are the main ingredient in a dish called “kadios baboy langka,” which is a savory stew made with smoked pork legs and jackfruit.

Cultural and Traditional Uses

Pigeon peas have a long and rich history, and they have been used in a variety of cultural and traditional ways. Here are some examples:

  • In the Dominican Republic, pigeon peas are a key ingredient in a dish called “moro de guandules,” which is a rice and pigeon pea dish that is often served with meat.
  • In the Caribbean coast of Colombia, pigeon peas are commonly used in a dish called “sopa de guandú con carne,” which is a soup made with pigeon peas and meat.
  • In San Basilio de Palenque, a maroon community in Colombia, pigeon peas are used to make a sweet dish called “dulce de guandú,” which is a mashed and sweetened version of the bean.
  • During Semana Santa, or Holy Week, in many Latin American countries, pigeon peas are used to make a dish called “habichuelas con dulce,” which is a sweet and creamy dessert made with pigeon peas, coconut milk, and other ingredients.

Eating Pigeon Peas

Unique and Delicious: Pigeon Peas as a Vegetable Alternative

Pigeon peas are a unique and delicious vegetable alternative that can quickly become a staple in your kitchen. These round legumes are similar in texture to lima beans, but with a nutty flavor that is undeniable. Pigeon peas are a great alternative to other beans and legumes, especially in warmer climates, as they are more tolerant of drought and hot, humid weather.

The Sustainability of Pigeon Peas

Environmental Sustainability

Pigeon peas are a sustainable crop that grows well in a variety of environments. They are drought-tolerant and can grow in poor soil conditions, making them an excellent choice for cropping in areas where other plants may struggle. Additionally, pigeon peas improve soil health by increasing nitrogen levels and suppressing weed growth. They also have a prime choice of health benefits, aiding in digestion, constipation relief, prevention of detoxification, and lower bad cholesterol levels, which all contribute to better cardiovascular health and weight loss.

However, like any crop, pigeon peas do have an impact on the environment. It takes approximately 3,000-5,000 liters (800-1,300 gallons) of water to produce one pound of pigeon peas. Additionally, the carbon footprint of pigeon peas is relatively low, with one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of peas producing the equivalent of driving a car for 1.6 miles. While pigeon peas are not known to cause significant damage due to chemical contamination, they do require water usage, which can indirectly harm animals and plants that rely on the same water sources.

What to Consider When Purchasing Pigeon Peas

Size and Appearance

When purchasing pigeon peas, size and appearance are essential factors to consider. Look for plump and firm peas that are free of splotching or discoloration. The inside of the pea should be strong and pale in color.

Harvest and Maturity

Pigeon peas require a considerable amount of time to mature, ranging from several months to a year. Young pigeon peas are not suitable for consumption and may have a distaste. Look for mature peas that have attained their full size.

Interesting Facts About Pigeon Peas:

1. Pigeon Peas Have Been Cultivated Since the Beginning of Agriculture:

Pigeon peas are likely to have originated in India and have been cultivated for over 3,500 years. They were then spread to Africa and the Americas by traders and explorers.

2. Pigeon Peas Provide Valuable Animal Feed:

Pigeon peas are not only a valuable source of nutrition for humans but also for animals. The shrub can be used as animal feed, and the wood can be used as fuel.

3. Pigeon Peas Are Known to Protect Against Infection:

Pigeon peas contain a compound called lectin, which protects against infection. This compound is known to be effective against certain types of bacteria and viruses.

4. Pigeon Peas Are Rich in Nutritional Value:

Pigeon peas are a dense source of nutrition, containing high concentrations of vitamins such as thiamin and niacin. They are also essential for containing low levels of sodium and high levels of fiber.

5. Pigeon Peas Contain a Unique Antioxidant:

Pigeon peas contain a compound called cajanus, which is a unique antioxidant that has a significant impact on human health. This compound is known to have diverse medicinal benefits.

6. Pigeon Peas Are a Significant Crop in Terms of Culinary Benefits:

Pigeon peas are a staple ingredient in many culinary traditions, including Indian, African, and Latin American cuisine. They are used in a variety of dishes, including soups, stews, and curries.

7. Pigeon Peas Are a Desirable Crop for Certain Arid Regions:

Pigeon peas are a desirable crop for certain arid regions because they grow well in harsh conditions and dry quickly. They can be stored for extended periods without spoiling, making them an important food source in areas where other crops may not grow.

8. Pigeon Peas Have Impressive Nutritional Facts:

A mature raw serving of pigeon peas contains 43.2 grams of carbohydrates, 21.7 grams of protein, and 1.5 grams of fat. They are also rich in minerals such as iron, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc.

9. Pigeon Peas Contain Healthy Fats:

Pigeon peas are a good source of healthy fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats are essential for maintaining good health and reducing the risk of heart disease.

10. Pigeon Peas Belong to the Fabaceae Family:

Pigeon peas belong to the Fabaceae family, which includes other legumes such as beans, lentils, and peanuts. They are a tropical plant that grows well in warm climates and is an important crop in many parts of the world.

In conclusion, pigeon peas are a unique and versatile crop that provides a wide range of benefits to both humans and animals. Their nutritional value, diverse culinary uses, and ability to grow in harsh conditions make them an essential ingredient in many cultures around the world.


Pigeon Peas Vs Chickpeas

Alright folks, it’s time to talk legumes. Specifically, let’s pit pigeon peas against chickpeas and see who comes out on top.

First up, chickpeas. These little guys hail from the Middle East and Mediterranean regions and are a staple in vegan and vegetarian diets. They’re high in protein and fiber, making them a versatile ingredient in dishes like hummus, falafel, and curry. Plus, they come in pasta form now, so you can get your carb fix with a side of protein.

But wait, there’s more! Chickpeas are also a great source of antioxidants, which have been linked to lower cholesterol levels and improved blood sugar control. And if you’re a vegan, listen up: chickpeas are packed with important minerals like iron, zinc, and magnesium, as well as B vitamins like thiamine and folate.

Now, let’s talk pigeon peas. These legumes are widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions and are a staple food in countries like India, Africa, and South America. They’re known for their rich flavor and versatility in cooking.

So, what sets pigeon peas apart from chickpeas? For starters, they’re higher in copper, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, selenium, and vitamin B1. Plus, they’ve got more iron than chickpeas, which is great news for anyone looking to up their iron intake.

But don’t count chickpeas out just yet. They’ve got pigeon peas beat in the manganese and folate departments. In fact, one cup of chickpeas covers 84.8% of your daily manganese needs, while pigeon peas only cover 39.7%. And if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, folate is a crucial nutrient that chickpeas have in spades.

So, who wins the legume showdown? It’s a tough call, folks. Chickpeas are a great all-around legume, packed with protein, fiber, and a variety of important nutrients. But if you’re looking for a legume with a little more iron and a richer flavor, pigeon peas might be the way to go. Either way, you can’t go wrong with these plant-based powerhouses.

Pigeon Peas Vs Yellow Split Peas

Alright folks, let’s talk about the difference between pigeon peas and yellow split peas. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Who cares? They’re just peas!” But trust me, there’s more to it than that.

First off, let’s start with the basics. Pigeon peas and yellow split peas come from different species of the bean family. Pigeon peas are scientifically known as Cajanus cajan, while yellow split peas belong to the species Pisum sativum. See, already we’re getting fancy with the Latin names.

Now, let’s talk about appearance. Pigeon peas are round or ellipsoid in shape and come in a variety of colors, including white, cream, brown, and purplish black. Meanwhile, yellow split peas are, well, yellow. Shocking, I know. But here’s the thing, they’re easily confused with split chickpeas, also known as chana dal. So, if you’re ever in doubt, just remember that yellow split peas are the ones that look like baby chickpeas.

Moving on to taste and texture. Pigeon peas have a mild, earthy flavor and a soft texture when cooked. They’re often used in Indian cuisine to make dhal or a spice blend called sambhars. On the other hand, yellow split peas have a slightly sweet flavor and a mushy texture when cooked. They’re commonly used in soups and stews, and are a staple in Dutch pea soup, also known as erwtensoep. Try saying that five times fast.

But wait, there’s more! Pigeon peas are a great source of protein and essential amino acids like methionine, lysine, and tryptophan. They also contain dietary fiber, which is great for keeping things moving, if you catch my drift. Meanwhile, yellow split peas are high in protein and low in fat, and contain the highest dietary fiber of any legume. So, if you’re looking to up your fiber game, yellow split peas are the way to go.

In conclusion, while pigeon peas and yellow split peas may seem like just another boring legume, they each have their own unique characteristics and uses. So, the next time you’re at the grocery store, don’t just grab any old pea. Take a moment to appreciate the differences and choose the one that’s right for you. And if all else fails, just remember, they’re both better than Brussels sprouts.


Why are pigeon peas so delicious? Pigeon peas are delicious because they have a nutty flavor and are versatile, making them perfect for stews, soups, and curries. They’re also easy to grow, making them a great choice for permaculture gardens. So, if you’re looking for a new crop to try, consider adding some pigeon peas to your garden! Just remember to soak them overnight before cooking!

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Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.