Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

cowpea Vigna unguiculata, an annual legume which exists in many forms. It originated in Africa but soon spread to Europe, where it was known during the classical era, and to Asia, where it became very popular. In the 16th century it was taken to America by the Spanish. It is one of the main food crops in Haiti. The plant needs a hot climate and in the USA it will only grow in the south.

Cowpeas can be divided into those grown for their seeds (beans or peas), which are usually dried, and those grown for their immature pods. The former, short plants with short pods, are those most often grown in Africa, India, and the USA. The latter, tall climbers with exceptionally long pods (the name ‘yard-long bean’ is not always an exaggeration), are favoured in SE Asia. But in some regions, such as the W. Indies, both sorts are cultivated. All are now assigned to V. unguiculata and the subspecies listed below, although some used to be classified as separate species.