Pigeon Peas
Various Forms [Gandule, Grandul, Alverja (Spanish); Guandu (Portugal); Toor, Tur, Tuvar, Red Gram, Arhar (India); Congo Pea, Gunga Pea, No-eye Pea; Pois d'Angole (France); Cajanus cajan]

Probably originating in India, pigeon peas were established in East Africa thousands of years ago and were brought to the Caribbean with the slave trade. They are now grown in all tropical and semi-tropical regions of the world, but until recently were almost unknown in mainland North America.

Pigeon peas are important in African, Caribbean and Central American cuisines, and essential to the cuisines of southern India where Toor Dal is the basic ingredient for sambars and required in many other dishes. The "red" in Red Gram refers to the color of the flowers. The photo shows peeled and split oiled dal (obsolete, but still sold for traditional cooks), dry dal, whole dried peas, whole fresh peas and whole ripe pods. The whole dried are often sprouted before cooking.

More on Beans, Peas & Lentils.

Buying:   Canned pigeon peas are now quite available in U.S. in markets serving Hispanic communities. Dried peas and dal are available in any market serving an Indian community. Generally the dal will be available in two forms, regular and oiled. The oil is to preserve freshness, but in today's markets, with high speed transportation, it is no longer necessary to stash large quantities for a long time, so the oiled has become more tradition than need. I would not use it unless a recipe specifically called for it.

Buying Fresh:   Pigeon peas in the pod are sometimes available at ethnic stands in farmers markets, particularly Southeast Asian and Indian. Fresh pods should show plump peas inside and should have strong color. Yellow or pale pods indicate poor quality.

Shelling:   If you buy peas in the pod, keep them in the pod until ready to use. Then boil them for 5 to 7 minutes and they'll be easy to shell (and you were about to cook them anyway).

Soaking:   Whole dried pigeon peas need to be soaked at least 6 hours. 1 cup of peas to 2-1/2 cups of water and 1/2 tablespoon of salt (Yes, salt, see our Soaking / Brining Dried Beans page). Dal is not soaked unless specifically called for by the recipe (soaking is said to changes its texture).

Cooking:   For Dal, see below. Soaked whole pigeon peas take about 1/2 hour to cook through but will still be quite firm on the outside and intact. Cooking longer makes little difference, that's just how pigeon peas are. Unsoaked peas should be cooked for at least 2 hours and they'll still be tougher than soaked peas.

Sprouting:   Whole pigeon peas are often sprouted before cooking. Sprout them the same as any other beans, but to the style preferred in India. The peas are ready to cook when they have a root tail about 1/2 inch long and the leaf end is just starting to emerge.

Toor Dal / Toover Dal / Red Gram:   In this split and peeled state pigeon peas are not soaked before cooking, unless a recipe specifically calls for it.

Because it's called for in so many recipes from southern India, you may wish to cook enough for several recipes. It will keep a week or so in a sealed container in the refrigerator. Use twice the measure the recipe calls for in uncooked toor dal.

  1. If the dal is oiled wash it thoroughly to remove the oil.
  2. If the dal is not oiled wash it thoroughly in several changes of water to reduce foaming. Alternatively, you can shake it vigorously in a wire strainer under hot running water.
  3. For 1 c dal put in a sauce pan with 2-1/3 cups of water if cooking 1 hour, 2-1/2 cups if cooking 1-1/2 hours. Use a sauce pan with plenty of head space because it will foam up when it comes to a boil.
  4. Bring to a boil uncovered (or it'll foam over). If making more than 1/3 cup, I use a skimmer to remove the pile of foam that rises. Simmer covered over very low heat for at least 45 minutes, or as called for by the recipe. Rasams often call for 1-1/2 hours, stirred now and then for the last 30 minutes.
  5. When done, it should have some free liquid remaining, but if it has a lot you can put it at a fast simmer uncovered to adjust.
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