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Synonym: black-eyed pea

botanical name: Vigna unguiculata

subspecies: asparagus bean, katjang bean




The seed of the cowpea is usually sold in dried form and is soaked prior to being eaten. Therefore it is considered one of the dried beans. The seeds are sometimes eaten with their pods as a vegetable, however.


Origin, areas of cultivation


The cowpea was probably cultivated as early as 4000-3000 b.c. in Ethiopia, where the greatest number of varieties are still found today. The Arabs took the cowpea to India about 1500-1000 b.c., and some 1000 years later it reached Europe as well. It was brought to America in the 17th century. Today, cowpeas are cultivated chiefly in India and West Africa. In South America and the West Indies, a group of islands in the Caribbean, they are very popular because of their short cooking time and their favourable price. They are also an important crop, however, in the warmer parts of North America, in India and in China.


Three subspecies have developed that are common today in the various regions where they are grown.


Appearance, taste, characteristics


The original annual cowpeas were herbaceous creepers. Newer breeds grow bushy, however.

The pods of the subspecies unguiculata (the complete name therefore is Vigna unguiculata ssp. unguiculata) are 15-20 cm long and light green.


The subspecies native to India, cylindrica (the katjang bean), bears pods 7-13 cm long on its upright growing, non-climbing stem. It is also known as the Angola bean and grows as a crop in Africa, South America and India. There it serves both as animal fodder and as a foodstuff. It is comparable to a pea in size, brown to black-purple, and occasionally speckled. It is harvested while still unripe, and the beans are then cooked and eaten as a vegetable. Salads can be made from the pods. Dried beans are used to make a flour for sweet cakes. The name katjang bean is also used for a different pulse, the pigeon pea. Click here for information.


The subspecies sesquipedalis, the asparagus bean, has pods up to 90 cm long. These are eaten as a vegetable.


The seeds of the cowpea are yellow-white and have a black spot on one side - the 'black eye', which gives the bean one of its other names, black-eyed pea.




Beans in general are rich in nutrients. They supply valuable vegetable protein, and they are rich in carbohydrates and low in fat (with the exception of the soybean).


They contain appreciable amount of minerals; the cowpea in particular is rich in folic acid, magnesium and phosphorous. In addition to these nutrients, the skins of the beans in particular contain a considerable amount of fiber, which provides for healthy intestinal activity. The content of secondary plant substances in beans should also be mentioned, above all phytoestrogens, saponines, and protease inhibitors.


Beans should never be eaten raw; in this condition they contain a harmful protein that leads to stomach and intestinal complaints that can even be fatal. This substance is destroyed, however, by 15 minutes of cooking or by lactic acid fermentation.

100 g contain:



Cowpea, dried, seed *

Energy (kcal)


Water (g)


Protein (g)


Fat (g)


Carbohydrates (g)


Fiber (g)


Vitamin A (RE) (µg)


Vitamin B1 (mg)


Vitamin B2 (mg)


Niacin (mg)


Vitamin B6 (mg)


Folic acid (µg)


Vitamin C (mg)


Potassium (mg)


Sodium (mg)


Calcium (mg)


Magnesium (mg)


Phosphorous (mg)


Iron (mg)


* The nutrient density is greater in dried fruits. They have more energy, vitamins and minerals per 100 g than the same amount of fresh produce because the water, which has practically no nutrients and contributes greatly to the weight of fresh fruits, is gone.


Form of consumption, use, processing, practical tips for preparation


Cowpea seeds are mostly dried. In the producing countries, moreover, the flour made from them is important. The fresh seeds can also be eaten, however. In Africa, in addition, the young sprouts and leaves are eaten like spinach. A product made of deep-fried beans is popular in Africa and lately in the USA as well, known as akara (bean balls). The seeds are also occasionally used to make an ersatz coffee.


Dried beans must be soaked for about 12 hours prior to cooking. The cooking time is then about 1-1.5 hours. Further preparation tips can be found in the chapter "Legumes, pulses".





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