January 2022 Issue

Legumes: Pigeon Peas
By Kathryn Atkinson
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 24, No. 1, P. 18

An Unusually Named Legume and a Popular Crop Around the World

If dietitians are reading this article on National Bean Day (January 6), they may want to celebrate the pigeon pea. It has an intriguing history and can be used in a wide variety of recipes.

Pigeon peas are one of nearly 16,000 types of legumes grown across the world, from chickpeas to soybeans to lentils. Scientifically known as Cajanus cajan, the pigeon pea is referred to by several names across different cultures and has a fascinating background. The origin of the name “pigeon pea” is unclear, and other names for this legume include no-eye pea, gungo pea, guandules, and red gram.1 The Latin name originates from the Sanskrit word kaand, or “stem,” which became the Telegu kandi, the Malay cachang, and eventually, the Latin Cajanus cajan.2

Pigeon peas are grown on a massive scale across the world. Among pulses, their cultivation is second only to chickpeas.3 Similar to other legumes, pigeon peas have a high protein content and as such have been referred to as the “poor people’s meat.”4 What’s more, the pigeon pea was the first legume to have its complete genome sequenced.5

History and Current Growth
Likely originating in India, pigeon peas have been cultivated for at least 3,700 years. The earliest archaeobotanical evidence comes from the southern peninsula of India, though evidence of noncultivated, wild varieties also has been discovered in more northern regions.4 It’s thought that the pigeon pea spread from India to East and West Africa, where it was encountered by Europeans. In the 17th century, pigeon peas were brought to the New World through the transatlantic slave trade, and quickly spread across Central and South America.6 Today, this legume is widely cultivated for both human and livestock consumption, with much of this production centered in the semiarid tropics.1 India and Myanmar top the list, contributing 83% of the world’s pigeon pea production.7 Other major contributors include Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, and they’re also a popular crop in the Caribbean.4,7 Pigeon peas are highly drought resistant, and as such are being considered for use as a forage crop, or a crop grown specifically for livestock consumption, in the southern United States.4,7,8

Pigeon peas are members of the Fabaceae family, which is commonly referred to as the “bean family,” from the Latin faba, or “bean.” The genus Cajanus encompasses 32 species, most of which are found in India.4 Unfortunately, many of these species aren’t widely studied.

Usually grown as small, leafy shrubs about 1 to 2 meters in height, pigeon pea plants may grow into small trees up to 4 meters tall.1 Often, the pigeon pea plant is used as a windbreak or as shade cover for smaller, immature plants. When grown with other cereal crops, pigeon peas have a positive effect on crop yield, influencing both the water-holding capacity of the soil and the overall soil structure.7

Along with being drought resistant, pigeon pea plants can grow in nutrient-poor environments and at a range of altitudes.1,4,7 However, while the pigeon pea has been able to spread out from where it originated in India, it hasn’t crossed the Himalayas.4 This is likely because most varieties aren’t frost resistant; the peak season for pigeon peas is the late summer and early fall.1 The crop can be either perennial, lasting around three to five years, or annual; the latter variety is more commonly used for seed production. When grown alongside other crops, such as maize, soybean, cotton, or sorghum, the pigeon pea plants reportedly have aided in weed control.3,7 Interestingly, they also may reduce stormwater runoff, though this depends on the type of pigeon pea grown.8

The pigeon pea grows inside long, thin pods similar in appearance to those of sugar snap peas or edamame. When young, the pods are green and lighter in color and tend to darken as the plant ages, though they can range in color from gray to purple or even black. Each pod holds about two to nine seeds, which are small and slightly flattened, and exhibit a variety of colors, including red, black, or brown.4 The plants also produce small red, orange, or yellow flowers. At harvest time, pigeon pea pods simply can be picked straight from the plant, though further processing often is required to dehull the seeds. One such method involves threshing of the harvested pods with sticks.7 Another method involves soaking and sun drying the pods before manual dehulling.

Nutrient Content
Similar to other legumes, pigeon peas are a significant source of protein and certain amino acids. A 100-g uncooked portion of pigeon peas contains 343 kcal, 22 g protein, 63 g carbohydrates, and 1.5 g fat. There are high levels of the amino acids methionine, tryptophan, and lysine in a serving of pigeon peas. In addition, these legumes are a valuable source of B vitamins, such as folate; a 100-g uncooked portion of pigeon peas contains 456 mcg folate, which is 114% of the DV.9

Pigeon Peas in World Cuisines
Across the world, pigeon peas are consumed in a variety of ways. The peas can be eaten while immature and green or may be consumed as a mature seed. In India, pigeon peas—known as toor dal or arhar dal—are considered a staple food and are commonly used in dal or sambar. Before use, the brown outer covering of the legume is removed, leaving a yellow seed that’s then split into two. This process enables the pigeon peas to become tender and break down during cooking, creating a thick, soupy mixture.4

In Southeast Asia, pigeon peas are used to make tofu, while in Central and South America, they’re commonly eaten with rice. Other parts of the pigeon pea plant apart from the seeds can be eaten or used as animal feed. In Ethiopia, people eat the young shoots and leaves. The dry stems and trunk of the pigeon pea shrub can be used as fuel, and the leaves often are fed to cattle.4 What’s more, the pigeon pea plant can be used as a host for insects that produce lac, a red substance that can be used as a dye.1

Using Pigeon Peas in Cooking
Dietitians can surmise that the pigeon pea is a phenom in its own right. Its rich history, nutrient content, and versatility in recipes makes it a good talking point with clients looking to expand their palates. Encourage clients to look for these small but mighty legumes the next time they’re in the grocery store. Not only will they add a great source of protein and amino acids to their diet but they also will enjoy one of the world’s most popular pulses. And whether clients consume them in a stew, in dal, or with rice, pigeon peas are sure to add dimension and flavor to any dish.

— Kathryn Atkinson is a junior at the University of Connecticut double majoring in nutrition sciences and food studies, with a minor in classics and ancient Mediterranean studies. In the future, she hopes to become an RD and earn her PhD in gastronomy.


1. Kingwell-Banham E, Fuller DQ. Pigeon pea: origins and development. In: Smith C, ed. Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. New York, NY: Springer; 2014.

2. Nene YL. Indian pulses through the millennia. Asian Agrihist. 2006;10(3):179-202.

3. Singh A, Fromm I, Jha GK, et al. Understanding pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) production conditions, stakeholders’ preferences for varietal traits and their implications for breeding programmes in India. bioRxiv website. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.06.08.139832. Published June 9, 2020.

4. Fuller DQ, Murphy C, Kingwell-Banham E, Castillo CC, Naik S. Cajanus cajan (L.) Millsp. origins and domestication: the South and Southeast Asian archaeobotanical evidence. Genet Resour Crop Evol. 2019;66:1175-1188.

5. Singh VK, Saxena RK, Varshney RK. Sequencing pigeonpea genome. In: Varshney RK, Saxena RK, Jackson SA, eds. The Pigeonpea Genome. Springer; 2017:93-97.

6. Carney JA, Rosomoff RN. In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press; 2009.

7. Ayenan MAT, Ofori K, Ahoton LE, Danquah A. Pigeonpea [(Cajanus cajan (L.) Millsp.)] production system, farmers’ preferred traits and implications for variety development and introduction in Benin. Agric Food Secur. 2017;6:48.

8. Pigeon pea: a multipurpose, drought resistant forage, grain and vegetable crop for sustainable southern farms. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Projects website. https://projects.sare.org/sare_project/ls07-201/  

9. Pigeon peas (red gram), mature seeds, raw. USDA FoodData Central website. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/172436/nutrients. Published April 1, 2019.


Arroz Con Gandules

This recipe is a popular way to consume pigeon peas on the island of Puerto Rico.

Serves 5

2 T annatto oil or vegetable oil
1/2 cup sofrito
2 T tomato paste
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
2 cups white rice, uncooked
1 cup tomato sauce
3 cups water
1 tsp salt
1 can green pigeon peas (gandules verdes) or 2 cups fresh pigeon peas, cooked

1. In a medium saucepan, add oil, sofrito, tomato paste, and cilantro and cook at medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Stir in rice, tomato sauce, water, salt, and pigeon peas. Boil for 10 to 15 minutes or until water is absorbed. Cover and cook at a lower temperature for 15 to 20 minutes or until rice is tender. Stir 2 or 3 times during cooking to allow for uniform doneness.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 278; Total fat: 10 g; Sat fat: 0 g; Sodium: 510 mg; Total carbohydrate: 38 g; Dietary fiber: 6 g; Protein: 10 g

— Source: Recipe courtesy of Sylvia Klinger, DBA, MS, RDN, founder and president of Hispanic Food Communications