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Collard Greens à la Benin with Black-eyed Peas. The legume, not the band.

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

Having been born and raised in Florida, with it's southern roots, Collards and Black-eyed Peas are a part of my personal food heritage. I love 'em both. Can't get enough of either. Usually my preparation of Collards follows what I learned young and then adapted to a WFPBNO (Whole-food, plant-based, no added oil) way of eating. Loads of onions and garlic, vegan chicken broth, red pepper flakes. With just a splash of Bourbon whiskey. Just, well, because.

Then, the other night, we watched the first episode ('Our Roots') of High On the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America. My jaw literally dropped as the episode opened in a place that I know well - Benin, West Africa. Practically every scene caused me to hit the Pause button and explain to my husband how I knew each place, and the significance of it.

I was inspired to use up the huge bunch of Collards in the fridge with an authentically Beninese twist ... and of course, with rice and Black-eyed Peas to go with.

My friend, Huber Agbenou and I at his home, Come, Benin.

I've been a lot of places around the world, but Benin was by far one of the most interesting. The cuisine of this country and culture is quite literally the roots of what we understand as African-American foodways. Gumbo? In West Africa it's "Ki Ngombo" ... usually shortened to "Gombo". Black-eyed peas - also known as Field or Cow Peas - came on the slave ships from West Africa. Many of the slave ships departed from the port of Ouidah, on the Bight of Benin. More than one million Africans were shipped out of Ouidah before the port closed in 1860's. Today, this terrible legacy is marked with an memorial arch, The Door of No Return.

On the steps of the Door of No Return, Ouidah, West Africa.

Beninese cuisine is wonderfully flavorful, with fruits and vegetables taking a starring role. But, I caution you: if you ever go there, be cautious about tasting 'spicy' foods. Ask first. The Heat Index of traditional Beninese food is legendary. It makes the hottest Thai food seem like child's play. It will take your eyebrows right off. Fair warning.

But, I can't quite take those levels of heat in my food. Just enough to know the 'heat' is there, but not so much that I can't taste anything for the next few hours. Snort. What is different between my old-school Collards and a Beninese preparation is really the addition of fresh ginger, Bay leaf and coconut milk. And, more tomatoes.

Ginger figures regularly in Beninese dishes.

Collard greens are one of the most versatile and flavorful greens, IMHO. They're not as bitter as Kale (which my husband doesn't like). And, not so easily over-cooked as Swiss Chard or Spinach. Collards regularly find their way into slaws and salads at my house - thinly julienned. And, often into soups and stews. My husband - not exactly a 'lover' of green leafy vegetables - actually likes steamed Collards. These greens braise brilliantly without getting mushy.

The really BIG leaves of collards make incredible wrappers for hand-rolls, and a great stand-in for a tortilla! They don't tear easily, and if you've removed the tougher central stem, they'll roll up nicely.

Even more importantly, Collards are a nutritional powerhouse! Another reason to opt for Collards - they seem to 'keep' longer and better in the fridge than some of the more delicate leafy greens.

The origins of Collards go back to ancient Greece and Rome, and then migrated northward to the British Isles. What we - in America - recognize as Collards greens is in their preparation, which is truly West African. That includes the 'Pot Likker' or juice/broth that the greens are cooked in. Pot likker is the highly concentrated, vitamin-filled broth that results from the long boil of the greens. Collard Greens became the State Vegetable of South Carolina in 2011. Really.

Black-eyed peas are traditionally served alongside Collards in the South. The pairing is a New Year's Day classic in the South. Also known as Cow Peas, they're not really a pea but a bean. Like peas, they're a legume since the pod is also edible.

The history of Black-eyed peas can be confusing. Thought to originate in China, the Greeks and Romans referred to them as Chickpeas. The legume made it's way to America with the slave trade as early as the mid-17th century. Originally used as food for livestock, the legume was overlooked by Northern soldiers as they went through the southern states, which left the peas behind as an important source of protein for people.

I always have a bag of the dried peas on the shelf - in addition to a couple cans of them for occasions when I don't have time to cook from dried. If you haven't tried Black-eyed Peas, you should. Personally, I find them more flavorful than 'white' beans, with an 'earthy' almost 'nutty' flavor profile. And, they also make a great substitute for Chickpeas as a spread or Hummus.

I'll often toss some in a pot with some sautéed onions and garlic, a bit of vegan broth, and herbs for a quick bean offering. They play very, very well with BBQ sauce, too.

As with many similar dishes, both of these taste even better the next day! They make a delicious, wonderfully nutritious and filling meal. Oh, and any leftover Black-eyed peas will be awesome wrapped in a tortilla or even more big Collard or Swiss Chard leaves as a hand-roll.

Here are both recipes! I hope you enjoy a taste of West Africa!

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