Black Eyed Peas and Okra: Foods of the African Diaspora

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black eyed peas and okraFebruary is the month designated to recognize and celebrate the history and achievements of African Americans. In every culture food is a major part of its identity. In every society, food has a meaning that goes beyond nourishment for the body, food is an element that can bring individuals, communities and even countries together. Such was the case with foods from the African Diaspora.

The African diaspora refers to the collection of communities worldwide that descended from people of Western and Central Africa, predominantly in the Americas and Caribbean from 1500 to the 1800’s. When the Africans arrived they brought with them some foods that we commonly eat today.

Two nutritious foods that we commonly eat in North Carolina that are native to Africa are black eyed peas and okra. In addition to containing life sustaining nourishment, both of these foods are surrounded in African folklore. It is said that African women hid okra seeds in their hair to plant when they arrived in the West Indies and American south. Black eyed peas are believed to bring good luck when eaten in the “Hoppin John” recipe on New Year’s day. The peas are also said to represents an abundance of money in the form of coins for the new year, while collards represent green paper money. These are common culinary traditions in North Carolina and the American south that now transcend race.

Black eyed peas, like most peas, are a rich source of complex carbohydrates. Complex carbs take longer to digest than simple carbs, and they provide fiber, energy, and help with weight loss. Black eyed peas are an excellent source of calcium, iron, vitamin A, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese, folate, and vitamin K. During pregnancy, one half-cup serving of black eyed peas contains 44 percent of the recommended daily intake of folate, which is a B vitamin that helps reduce the chance of brain and spinal cord defects in newborns. The soluble fiber in black eyed peas helps the body regulate blood sugar levels and reduce spikes in blood sugar.

Black eyed peas can be eaten alone, mixed with other beans, added to salads and soups, mashed in hummus, mixed into a bean-based fritter or in other recipes.

Like black eyed peas, okra is also very nutritious. Okra contains vitamin C which supports a healthy immune system. Okra contains vitamin K which helps our blood to clot properly, and this amazing food contains polyphenols which also decreases the risk of heart problems and stroke by preventing blood clots. Just one cup of okra contains 15 percent of the daily value of folate. Folate is an essential nutrient during pregnancy to reduce the risk of neural tube defects that can affect the brain and spine of developing fetuses. Additionally, okra is a good source of magnesium, vitamin A and vitamin B6. To maintain a healthy weight okra is a great choice as it is low in carbohydrates and calories.

Okra is a mucilaginous food, which means it becomes slimy when cooked. Many people love the slimy occurrence while others do not. There are some good health benefits associated with the slime of cooked okra. The slime found in okra has a soluble fiber that can be digested. It has also been shown to have anti-adhesive properties that block the sticking and settling of Helicobacter pylori bacteria, which are germs that cause ulcers in the lining of the stomach and upper part of the small intestine. For culinary enthusiast, the slime is the secret to nice rich sauces and stews, such as gumbo, which literally is derived from  “ki ngombo” the term for okra in the Central Bantu dialect of West Africa. Okra is wonderful in stews, roasted, fried, grilled or even pickled. However you decide to prepare your okra it is sure to be a treat.

Black eyed peas and okra are just two of the wonderful nutritious foods from the African Diaspora that we enjoy. To learn more about healthy foods and recipes or if you would like to host  health and wellness classes at your site contact Cheri Bennett at or 910-997-8255.

The Richmond County Cooperative Extension Office helps provide research-based education and technology to the producers and citizens of this great county. The office is located at 123 Caroline St. in Rockingham, and can be reached at  910-997-8255 or for more information.