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Raiders of the lost Indian pea
Indian peas (Lathyrus Sativus) are exceptional legumes with a very high protein content. But even more importantly, they are highly resistant plants that adapt very well to any climate and soil type. Cultivating Indian peas is a guarantee, because they are productive, even when all other crops are not.
In Italy, Indian peas were used both for simple dishes that farmers ate after a hard day at work in the fields, and in flavour-packed dishes full of history and traditions. They spread mainly around Umbria, Marche and Molise, but also in Lazio and in some areas of Apulia; they have obtained the Italian “Traditional agri-food product” quality seal.
That being said, Indian peas are less commonly cultivated and eaten than before. It is hard to mechanise their cultivation and that has hindered their diffusion. On one side, that represents a disadvantage for farmers, but a careful consumer surely sees in a manual and handmade farming a guarantee of quality.
Moreover, their reputation as “cursed” legumes didn’t help at all, as well as long cooking and soaking times. It is a pity, though, because these legumes are not only nutritious and healthy, but they are also delicious.
The “cursed” legumes: truth or legend?
Because they are so drought-tolerant, Indian peas were mainly farmed in dry areas, where food shortage was a recurring nightmare. There was one problem, though: an excessive consumption of only Indian peas may cause a neurodegenerative disease whose effects are, among others, the paralysis of legs.
Lathyrism, whose name comes from the scientific name of Indian peas, was a common disease in the driest areas of Spain, Northern Africa and Southern Asia until the last century and can still be found in the poorest areas of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.
Let’s clear a couple of things up, though. Lathyrism only occurs in the event of famine and drought, when no fresh food is available. Indian peas may cause side effects, only if they are the only source of food.
It was also proven that only the plants growing in dry areas during a drought, so without any water at all, contain the neurotoxin ODAP triggering the disease. It is, therefore, impossible to get sick, unless one only eats Indian peas that grew with no water. This feature is, nonetheless, a part of their history.
A legume variety worth (re)discovering
This plant is very widespread from the Mediterranean basin, through Eastern Africa, to Asia. Ancient Egyptians were allegedly the first to eat Indian peas, though, as they would make bread and flatbread with the flour made by milling this plant’s grains. Then, the Romans came up with the Indian pea soup.
As is the case with all legume varieties, they were the main source of proteins for all those people that couldn’t afford meat. They were, therefore, a peasant dish, but they were also nutrient-dense and had a unique taste.
Nowadays, they are far less common than beans or chickpeas, although we can finally see some signs indicating a slow rebirth. Because people pay more attention to their nutrition and rather eat healthy and genuine food, these exceptional legumes are regaining, little by little, the attention that they deserve.
They require a very long soaking time, at least 18 hours in lukewarm and salted water. It’s a matter of organisation: they can be soaked overnight and cooked the following day. Take into account that it takes roughly 2 hours to cook them in a normal pot, and much less in a pressure cooker.
Do not be afraid of the long cooking and soaking times, because Indian peas are truly delicious, with a taste reminiscent of lupini beans and broad beans. They are also very versatile; they are ideal to make hearty soups and creams, purées, side dishes or salads.
The best recipes with Indian peas
The most famous recipe is undoubtedly the Indian pea soup. It is traditional dish from Umbria and Marche and it tastes amazing with the addition of some pork fat. Once they have been soaked and steamed, Indian peas are mixed with peeled tomatoes, salt, pepper and parsley and added to the broth and to any other vegetables you like.
You can leave the soup as it is or mix it; plate it with two slices of roasted bread and a thread of high-quality olive oil.
If you want to try out a real peasant dish from the traditional Abruzzo cuisine, try Sagne with Indian peas. Sagne is a type of fresh pasta made only from water and flour, that is cut in a diamond shape and dressed with tomato sauce and steamed Indian peas. It is not suitable as a last-minute meal, but we know that good things come to those who wait.
If, on the contrary, you want a fresher dish, try Indian pea salad. Cook the Indian peas and add them to tomatoes, salad, carrots, celery, onions and so on and so forth. I like to season it with salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon.
When a foodstuff disappears, a little bit of our history is forever lost, too. Indian peas almost disappeared forever, and we can still taste these incredible legumes, only because people started to rediscover regional, ancient and genuine foodstuffs.
They are really worth the long prep time. I can assure you; Indian peas will reward your patience with a unique and unmistakable flavour.