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Mind Your Peas

His policy on vegetables is that fresh is nearly always better than preserved. But in the case of the pea, Vir Sanghvi is prepared to make an exception. Here's more on it...

india Updated: May 21, 2012 12:14 IST
Vir Sanghvi

It's hard for you and me to understand quite how glamorous the fresh pea has become in the West. Yes, I do mean the mutter, the vegetable we put into pulaos or cook with aloo or paneer. We may have grown up seeing piles of pea-pods heaped on the kitchen table before they were shelled and the peas extracted for the cooking of the evening meal. But there's a whole generation in the West that has never seen a pea pod and regards the fresh pea as a strange and exotic vegetable.

In his book, The Man Who Ate The World, the British food writer Jay Rayner recounts going to dinner at the Michelin three-star Guy Savoy restaurant in the centre of Paris. The waiter came over to discuss the order and pushed the pea dish. Rayner wanted to know what was done with the peas. It turned out that they were not accompaniments to some meat but were the main ingredients of the dish. In fact, the peas were deemed important enough to get an accompaniment of their own: a poached egg.

The peas were completely fresh, probably picked off the branch early that morning. Besides, as Rayner recalls, the waiter was proud of the extra effort that the kitchen had put into the dish. "'Every pea in this pea salad is sliced in half,' Hubert (the waiter) said in a conspiratorial whisper. 'Every pea.' Pause. 'In half... and do you know why they slice every pea in half?' He dropped his voice to an even more breathy whisper. 'Double the pleasure,' he hissed."

When the dish did arrive, it consisted of a light pea purée topped with the pea halves. In the centre was a more coarse pea purée, topped with a poached egg. In 2007, this dish cost 47 euros and I am sure it costs a lot more now. It is, as Rayner notes, an awful lot of money for a handful of peas and an egg.

A Pea dishSo, why do great chefs make such a tamasha about peas? Much of it has to do with the flavour of the ingredient. When we use peas in Indian cooking we are - let's be honest now - not so concerned with the taste of each pea as we are with the texture of the vegetable. We put peas into keema mutter or a mutter pulao because we like the reassuring plop that each pea makes in our mouths as we squish down on it. It is not as though we don't like the taste of peas. It is just that we don't focus too much on it.

In European cooking, on the other hand, peas are valued for their taste largely because chefs don't use the kinds of masalas that our cooks have access to. The French began the craze for petit pois. These are small peas that manage to actually taste of the garden and have a wonderful sweet centre. I used to think that these were a different variety of pea. In fact, they are pretty much the same as normal everyday peas. The French just pick them early, before they've had a chance to mature fully and retain a sweet freshness.

It is that sweet freshness that brings us to the problem of fresh peas. At the centre of each individual pea is quite a lot of sugar. We know that once vegetables are picked, their ingredients tend to become unstable. (The classic example is the potato which tastes very different when it is new from the kind that has been kept in storage for a while.) But pea sugars are more unstable than most other vegetable ingredients. Within hours of the pod being picked off the branch, the sugars begin to deteriorate. Usually, they turn into starches which completely alter the taste of the pea.

It therefore becomes an incredibly expensive business to serve a pea before its natural sugars have transformed. Such French chefs as Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire pay vegetable growers to pick their peas in the morning and then rush them to their restaurants either by car or by high-speed train. At Gagnaire's restaurant in London, French peas which have travelled through the Channel tunnel that very day are served only on the evening of the day that they have been picked. Any uneaten peas cannot be served the next day because they will have lost their sweetness.

There is, of course, an easy way around this. If you freeze peas soon after they have been picked then they retain their sugariness. When you defrost them, they will taste exactly as they tasted when the freezing process began. Besides, you don't have to go to the trouble of shelling them.

Consequently, the majority of peas consumed in the Western world are frozen after being shelled. That's why a whole generation of Americans and Europeans has never seen a pea pod. They think of peas as something that comes out of a packet. My policy on vegetables is that fresh is nearly always better than preserved. But in the case of the pea, I am prepared to make an exception. Of course you should eat fresh peas, if like Guy Savoy, you can cook them on the day they were picked. But given that most of us do not have that privilege, frozen peas actually - bizarrely enough - taste fresher than genuinely fresh peas.

Does this make a difference in other cuisines? I reckon it makes very little difference in Indian food what kind of peas you use. The taste is not that important so if you are happy shelling your peas and buying them from the local subzi-wallah then good luck to you. If, on the other hand, you find it easier to just pick up a packet of frozen peas then I doubt if it will make much difference to the flavours of your cooking.

The unusual thing about peas, of course, is that they are an international vegetable. (You can be pedantic and claim that scientifically speaking they are actually a fruit but that seems like a pointless discussion in our context.) Archaeologists have found peas in the Indus Valley Civilisation and they seem to have existed in other ancient civilisations dated back to 3000 BC. Even China, where the pea is called Hu Tou (which means foreign legume), has known the vegetable since the 7th century AD, which might explain why it turns up in so many Chinese dishes (including most famously, egg fried rice) and is sprouted so that chefs can cook with pea shoots.

As you may have guessed, I am something of a pea fanatic myself. I have experimented with the peas that you get in Delhi markets and unfortunately, many of them taste only slightly of pea, perhaps because they were picked too long ago. Some Indian frozen peas are better but the problem is that they sell them by weight which means that they wait till the peas are large before plucking them and freezing them. This means that all traces of the sweetness that should be at the heart of the pea have often vanished when the freezing process begins. If you are prepared to spend a little bit more, then you can buy imported frozen peas at many supermarkets. These are a little more expensive (but much cheaper than meat or fish) and allow for more versatility in your cooking.

Because I like the taste of peas, I have invented a warm salad which is not only easy to make but also captures the taste of fresh peas. First, chop lots of onions and garlic. Then take a good spicy salami or a chorizo (buy a chunk not slices) and cut it into pieces the size of the garlic and onions. Next you put a pot of water on the boil and defrost some bacon.

The actual cooking process is simplicity itself. While the water is boiling, sauté the salami in a little olive oil. When it begins to release its fat, throw in the onions and garlic and sweat them. As soon as the water boils, empty the contents of a packet of frozen peas into it. In a few minutes, the peas will begin to rise to the surface, meaning that they are cooked. As each layer of peas rises to the top of the water, start to remove it to make room for the next layer. When you have removed all the peas, add them to the onion, garlic and salami. Toss them all together over a low heat for a minute or so to allow the flavours to mingle.

What you do next is up to you and depends largely on the quality of your ingredients. The salad should have a slightly spicy, garlicky taste, which should contrast with the sweetness of the peas. If you find that this has not happened, then it is easy enough to correct. You can stir in a little garlic purée or add a few drops of Tabasco. If the peas have contributed too little to the taste, then a few drops of Balsamico should add the necessary sweetness. The chef's trick would be to now add a little butter to coat the peas but I find that this is unnecessary.

The salad is ready. I like to add a little fresh parsley once the dish is in the bowl but parsley is not always available. My current penchant is to cook a little bacon till it is very crisp and then to add a few pieces to the salad for texture and extra pigginess. It's a dish that you can eat on its own, that requires relatively few ingredients. And it is delicious. Try it and see.