Gregor Mendel’s Peas?
Crisp and Tender, Raw or Barely Cooked
There is a question where this vegetable comes from: Some Japanese encyclopedias and cookbooks assert that the Snow Pea was the plant used by Gregor Mendel in his experiments that gave rise to the science of modern genetics.
In Japan, Snow Peas are commonly thought to be of Chinese origin, but this is also questionable. The Chinese names for the vegetable Xue Dou (“Snow Pea:), common on Chinese menus, would appear to be a loan-translation from the English name. Another Chinese name Ho Lan Dou (“Netherlands Bean”) would seem to indicate an assumed European origin.
The Japanese call this plant Saya Endo, which really tells nothing about where they may have originated. The botanical name Pisum sativum var. saccaratum, is the same as the name of the plant Mendel says he used for his experiments, but as there are a number of varieties of this Pea, it is likely Mendel’s pea plants and the ones we know as Snow Peas were very close, but possibly not quite the same.
The pods are more than the regular shelling Pea, thanks to a recessive gene, and when the peas are very young, they are picked, the ends snipped off and they can be cooked in a way similar to Green Beans and are eaten whole.
Nutritionally, Snow Peas are low in calories, and also contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals, being especially rich in Vitamin A and Potassium.
When shopping for Snow Peas, you want to look for a uniform, dark green color, without discoloration or dark spots. They should be used as soon as possible, and are cooked for a very brief time only. In many traditional Japanese recipes Snow Peas are exposed to boiling water for only 10 to 30 seconds, essentially just blanched. In other dishes they may be cooked for a minute or two only.
Snow Peas are delicious and very tender and readily available, especially during the spring and summer months. They are very good to add to soups and salads, raw or just barely cooked.
Many recipes recommend removing the flowery stem and to string them before cooking, but if not careful, it may result in opening the whole pot prematurely, so care is needed.
Traditionally, Snow Peas prepared in the traditional manner are a standard component of the New Year’s Bento service. There’s a special recipe for Snow Peas at New Year’s in the Collection.
In Japanese cuisine, Snow Peas appear in many places, in soups and salads, as a garnish for sushi preparations and grilled dishes. They appear prominently with mushrooms, turnips, carrots and bamboo shoots in Umpen Jiru, a classic Buddhist vegetarian soup served at Muryoan restaurant in Tokyo.
In her writings, Elizabeth Andoh gives a variety of instructions for cutting decorate shapes for Snow Peas used as garnishes for sushi and other dishes.
In more contemporary Japanese cuisine, Snow Peas appear in various ways, as a salad with Almond Dressing, with Hot Mustard Dressing, Braised with Koya Tofu, and as Snow Peas with Poached Eggs. They also can be blanched an flash-fried.
Chinese chefs sometimes use Snow Peas as the basic of a stir-fry dish, like Stir-Fried Snow Peas, a Cantonese dish which combines several vegetables very effectively, and there are other variations on stir-fried applications in Chinese cuisine. The Pea Pod Shoots are more highly prized in Chinese cuisine, and often cooked with Garlic and served with Seafood such as Crab.
For further information:
Ando, Elizabeth, An American Taste of Japan (New York: William Morrow, 1985)
Chang, Wonona W. and Irving B. and Helen W. and Austin H. Kutscher, An Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking (New York: Crown, 1970).
Froud, Nina, Cooking the Japanese Way (London: Paul Hamlyn, 1963).
Green, Karen, Japanese Cooking for the American Table (Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1986)
Itoh, Joan, “Peas of a Different Pod,” Japan Times, June 7, 2973, p.7.
Itoh, Joan, Rice Paddy Gourmet (Tokyo: Japan Times, 1978)
Kondo, Shonoko, The Poetical Pursuit of Food (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1986)
Matsumoto, Fumiko, Tadashii shokuseikatsu no tame no shokuhin seibunhyo (Tokyo: Shibata Shoten 1995).
Wikipedia, “Snow pea,” article, 2014.