Split peas of the East

When it comes to split peas, sometimes it seems like everyone uses the same recipe - cooked to a soup with some smoked meat or sausages for flavor.

split pea soup 88 (photo credit: )
split pea soup 88
(photo credit: )
When it comes to split peas, sometimes it seems like everyone uses the same recipe - cooked to a soup with some smoked meat or sausages for flavor. That's how you'll find them used in American kitchens and much of Europe, from France to Scandinavia. For vegetarian and parve meals there obviously are meatless versions of that soup. Generally the soups are simple, with just one or two flavoring vegetables - onions or leeks, carrots and sometimes celery. Many cooks then remove the vegetables and blend the soup, so it becomes a smooth, satisfying green puree, most welcome on a cold day. Yet split peas are not necessarily green, are not used only in the West and are not just for soup. I'm pleased whenever geymeh is on the buffet at a Persian eatery in my neighborhood. This classic stew is made of small lamb or beef cubes cooked with tomatoes, dried lemon and yellow split peas, and sometimes comes embellished with fried eggplant. Instead of appearing as a puree, the split peas keep their identity and make the dish very appealing. In Asia, split peas don't have to stand on their own as they do in European soups; they do very well in a supporting role when other ingredients are the stars. Sometimes they are added to meat soups along with rice to contribute body, flavor and a contrasting texture. Persians make a sweet and sour chicken soup with dried fruit, and add a small amount of split peas to give the soup more substance. One of my favorite soups contains strips of cooked turkey, rice, garlic, fresh dill and cilantro and is dotted with split peas. Cooks in South Asia also use split peas as thickeners for meat sauces and vegetable dishes. When Afghan cooks make meaty spaghetti sauce, they might cook split peas along with the ground meat, so the sauce has a more interesting consistency. In India, where legumes are served at least once a day, split yellow chickpeas are cooked with other legumes in a sauce-like stew that makes a tasty topping for Basmati rice. Like other legumes, split peas are very nutritious. They are a good source of protein, fiber, folic acid and minerals. Although whole dried peas are available in some markets, many cooks prefer split peas because they cook more rapidly. Dried peas have a long history. According to The Pea and Lentil Cookbook, edited by Randall Duckworth (USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, 2000), "Archeologists have discovered peas in caves in Thailand that date back more than 11,000 years." I've often wondered why tofu isn't made out of other beans besides soybeans. It turns out that Burmese cooks use yellow split peas to produce a bean curd that resembles soybean tofu. They also use split peas to make fritters that resemble felafel; you can find them on the menu at Mum's House, a Burmese eatery in London. Susan Chan, the author of Flavors of Burma/Myanmar (Hippocrene, 2003), writes that Burmese cooks add split peas to lamb curry flavored with fresh ginger and lemongrass to impart a creamy texture and sweet taste. In Tibet, split peas might even appear on the breakfast table. According to Marc Cramer, author of Imperial Mongolian Cookbook (Hippocrene, 2001), a Himalayan split pea pancake spiced with garlic, gingerroot, cumin, turmeric, dried chili and onions, is a favorite in Lhasa, Tibet's capital. That sounds like an interesting specialty to try if I ever happen to be in Tibet! SPLIT PEAS WITH CHICKEN AND TARRAGON This stew, flavored with cinnamon and herbs in the Persian fashion, is often made with lamb, but I substitute chicken and add zucchini so it will be lighter. You can also make the stew with boneless turkey. Serve it with Basmati rice or Persian rice, pita or with a big bowl of green salad. 3⁄4 cup split peas, sorted and rinsed about 3 1/2 cups chicken broth, water or a mixture of both 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil 1 large onion, sliced 450 to 500 grams boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut in 2.5-cm. dice salt and freshly ground pepper 1⁄2 tsp. turmeric 1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon 2 zucchini or pale-green squash (keeshoo), diced 2 Tbsp. chopped tarragon or 2 tsp. dried 1 Tbsp. chopped mint or 1 tsp. dried Combine split peas and 21⁄2 cups broth in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 1 hour or until peas are just tender, adding water if mixture becomes too thick. Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Add chicken, salt, pepper, turmeric and cinnamon and saute lightly until chicken changes color. Add remaining cup of broth and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for 7 minutes. Add zucchini and cook for 5 to 8 minutes or until chicken and zucchini are tender. Add cooked split pea mixture and a little more liquid if stew is too thick. Lightly stir in tarragon and mint and simmer for 2 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).