Although I had never heard of them before, pigeon peas have been consumed by humans for quite a long time. The evidence indicates that this legume was domesticated in India 3500 years ago. Since then, this plant has spread around the world, being grown in suitably tropical/subtropical environments in Africa, South America, Asia, and North America. The current biggest producers of this plant are the Indian subcontinent and Africa, accounting for over 90% of the total.
Pigeon peas are eaten in three main ways. Some folks pick them early in their development, and remove the peas from their pods and eat them as green vegetables. Others let the plant go longer, and then harvest and dry the older peas. And some then take these dried peas and grind them up into a flour. These varying formats result in some nutritional changes, but in all ways the peas are still very beneficial. They're good sources of protein, B vitamins, folate, potassium, zinc, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, and manganese.
The plants are also relatively easy to grow. They show admirable resistance to drought-like conditions. And their planting requirements are evidently quite loose. One website I looked at, Tropical Permaculture, amusingly put it, "planting depth is whatever. Just stick them in the ground, they'll grow." The non-pea parts of the plant are useful as well--the pods, flowers, and leaves make for decent animal fodder. The wood is reportedly excellent for starting and maintaining fires. Plus the peas are good nitrogen fixers for the soil.
I was able to buy two containers of pigeon peas, in twin 15 ounce (425 gram) cans. Both were grown in Peru. And both were from NJ-based companies that I've mentioned on this blog before, Goya and Wakefern.
1) Goya. I tried to branch out a little and not just eat the peas plain. Since I'm fairly ambivalent at best about regular peas, I thought mixing them up in other meals might be more interesting and productive. The peas themselves were light greenish or brown, and were the same size and shape as "normal" peas. Just out of the can, alone, they were pretty bland, and similar to their regular cousins. I ended up putting them in a couple of microwaved frozen meals--Healthy Choices' steamed chicken and broccoli with alfredo sauce, and the same company's parmesan penne pasta with spinach and portabella mushrooms. In both cases, being in a sauce, with other foods, was an improvement. The chicken, broccoli and alfredo sauce pairing was definitely the better one. To be sure, though, I think I'd find just about any food to be good when it has alfredo sauce on it, so there's that.
2) Wakefern. The pigeon peas in this can looked identical to the Goya ones in color, shape, and size. I did notice a taste difference, though. Although the Goya and the Wakefern selections both consisted of of the same ingredients--peas, water, and salt--the Wakefern peas were markedly inferior in flavor--less zest. (Maybe they used different kinds of salt, or water, or less fresh peas?) Anyway, I put these in with two other microwaved frozen dinners--Smart Ones ham and cheese scrambled eggs, and Lean Cuisine's sweet sriracha braised beef with snap peas, broccoli, and bell peppers, in a sriracha sauce. Pigeon peas with the ham and cheese scrambled eggs weren't very good--it wasn't a triumphant pairing. And with the beef, peppers, snap peas broccoli and sriracha was also disappointing, somewhat surprisingly since another kind of pea was already in there.
In summation, then, if you're a fan of peas in general, you'll probably like the pigeon variety, since they're not that different. But I certainly recommend mixing them up in multi-component dishes, rather than eating them by themselves. And clearly, which meal you put them in can make a significant difference. As you might expect, they are very cost effective, since each can was like $1. But if your choices are Goya or Wakefern, I'd obviously go with the former.
I was also intrigued by the pigeon pea's biochemical makeup. They're kind of like less intense, plant versions of Highlanders, from the 1986 movie of the same name. (Yes, I'm aware that this was actually a long movie series, and television series, but I don't like to acknowledge these!) Pigeon peas are allelopathic, meaning that they give off chemicals that can negatively influence the germination, growth, and survival of other plant species in their immediate vicinity. (Some other plants that exhibit this trait are black walnut, tree of heaven, an garlic mustard.) So bear that in mind if you decide to grow them. But the only dramatic sword fights between the pigeon peas and other plants will be in your imagination, alas.
Oh, almost forgot, I wasn't able to find out the answer to the most obvious question--why are they commonly called "pigeon" peas? Some people theorize it's because they can be used as feed for these birds. Others think this answer is too simple. No one seems to know for sure.