17 Dec 2013

December: Perfect Time for the Fragrant Pigeon Pea

By Jorge Ventocilla

There are many good things in life. However, with regard to cooking, there is one dish I consider to be really outstanding and that is rice with pigeon peas (“arroz con guandú”).  We could certainly mention different examples on the gourmet side…but, in my opinion, the scent of a bowl of rice with coconut milk and pigeon peas is sublime.

If you are from the countryside, you may call it “frijol de palo” instead of “guandú” as it is called in Panama City, and you would probably skip the coconut milk. For example, in Chiriquí, a stew with rice, pigeon peas and yuca (“guacho de guandú con yuca”) would be a more common dish.

The scientific name for the pigeon pea is Cajanus cajan. The centre of its origin has been determined to be India. From there, it would have been taken to East Africa via Malaysia, over one thousand years ago. Eventually, it would have gone up to the Nile Valley towards the West of the African continent. Historians think that pigeon pea was brought to the New World from Zaire or Angola during the days when slavery was widespread.

Today, the pigeon pea is very important in India, where approximately 90% of the world production is grown. It is also grown in other tropical regions as southern and eastern Africa and also Central America. Congo pea, frijol quinchancho, quinchonchillo, guandul, gandule, pois d’Angole, are some of its common names.

It is not only used for human consumption, but also for feeding domestic animals. If you pay attention to farmyards in rural areas throughout the country, you will see coconut palm trees, lemon trees, yuca (cassava) trees, banana and orange trees…and I bet you will find pigeon pea plants as well.  

Anyway, don’t have to drive that far…it is also grown here in the city.  My neighbor, Rufino Hidalgo, tells me “…it is better to sow the seeds around midsummer”. He adds, “this plant loves growing on grasslands. It would start flowering in December and, a month and a half later, it is harvest time!” He promised to give me some seeds for the next season.

Harvest is at its best from December through February, but actually there are new crops any time of the year. Hidalgo also advises “…if you let it dry on the plant, then it becomes more suitable for guacho”.

Experts agree that pigeon pea is the most important legume in semiarid tropics. There is a wide variety of pigeon peas, which allows for a high adaptability to different environments.  It is grown at sea level and also at high altitudes (elevations of up to 10,000 feet). It is a very high heat/drought resistant plant, in comparison to other kinds of crops. It also grows in high-humidity areas, in temperatures of up to 35º C (95º F).

Some monoculture pigeon pea crops can yield up to approximately 5-8 tons of grain per every 2.5 acres. It is a good source of protein (a 25% protein content) and of several amino acids (but neither methionine or cystine).  I have read that its Vitamin A and C content is 5 times higher than that of yellow split peas.

Our farmers know that pigeon peas are excellent for improving the quality of the soil: it helps to nitrogen fixation and helps increase soil fertility. In other countries, the stalk is used for roofing and basket weaving.

Maybe these holidays are the perfect time for focusing on what we can share with those we love (something made with our own hands), instead of focusing on those countless trips to the mall. I am sure that most of you are going to include pigeon peas in your holiday menu and make the most of your time by spending it together as a family. I can’t figure out when was it that we lost this beautiful tradition: sitting together for dinner.

We must try and keep this tradition alive, every day, since it is one of the most simple but meaningful things a family can do. I wish that all of you have the opportunity of doing this in 2014, and, as my dear friend, Dr. José Renán Esquivel, used to say: “Happiness to everybody”.

English translation by Sara I. Melo D.

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