Nearly 5,000 years ago, the Emperor Shen Nung ruled over China. Said to be the father of Chinese Agriculture, Shen Nung would roam about the countryside, collecting and observing plants. In order to gain a better understanding of potential dietary or medicinal purposes of the plants he found, he would perform a test – the plant would first be fed to a dog, followed by a servant and if neither were killed or made sick from consumption, then Shen Nung ruled the plant fit for his own palate. Peas were among the plants to pass the emperor’s test and from that point forward, peas became a major part of ancient Chinese culinary culture.
Peas also appeared in a number of other ancient cultures – there are records indicating their prevalence in Egypt as well as other Mediterranean cultures. In Norse Mythology, the god Thor sent peas to the earth as a means of punishing the Norse people. According to the myth, Thor sent dragons to drop peas throughout the land but once the peas germinated, the people continued to grow and consume peas as a means of paying tribute to Thor. Whatever their place in mythology, early civilizations only knew to eat peas in a dried state (which is more like today’s split peas); it wasn’t until the 16th century that people began to eat peas in their fresh state. King Louis XIV popularized peas once he began requesting them on menus at Versailles. In the 19th century, peas undertook a much different though equally important role as test subjects for scientist George Mendel’s studies in genetics.
Peas themselves are actually the seeds of the legume Pisum sativum and are actually botanically characterized as fruits – though they are almost always regarded and prepared as vegetables. The casing that the peas are housed in is referred to as a pod. When it comes to growing peas, the plant itself thrives best in cool weather, however different varieties of peas maintain different seasons. The Garden Pea, which is the oldest and most common variety, is available from spring through early winter. Snow Peas, which were first developed in Holland in the 17th Century, can be found year round in many Asian grocery stores, though their more national growing cycle tends to mimic that of the Garden Pea. Sugar Snap Peas, on the other hand, are the newest of the pea varieties. A biological mix of the Snow and Garden Peas, Sugar Snap Peas were first developed in the 1970's and are typically found from late spring to early summer. You may also commonly find split peas, which are simply dried, peeled and split versions of Garden Peas and they are typically found in either green or yellow varieties.
Peas are more than just pleasing for your palate: they promote bone health not only because they contain Vitamin K, but also because they contain folic acid and vitamin B6, both of which also aid in cardiovascular well-being. Peas also contain a number of nutrients that are helpful in providing a boost of energy, including vitamins B1, B2, B3 and C, as well as iron. You’ll find peas in a number of our recipes, including Dancing Goddess Dumplings in Pea and Spinach Broth, Spring Sprout Pate and Afghan Split Peas with Apples and Cinnamon.
Sugar snap peas can be eaten raw or lightly steamed. They are crispy, sweet, and delicious.