The story of the asparagus pea

Like most back garden-vegetable growers, I can’t resist the lure of the unusual.

Asparagus pea plant
What is this horticultural marvel? It’s none other than an asparagus pea. (Plus a few aphids because, you know, it came from my garden and that is aphid central…)

We’ve all heard innumerable times about the quest of the evil supermarkets to stamp out choice and offer us only the same few varieties of veg (those that store well and grow uniformly) whereas we (the elite! The vanguard! Those sticking it to the man!) with our allotments, our vegetable gardens, our peas growing in pots on a balcony, well, we have the option of growing every variety on offer in nature. Which is a pretty huge choice.

Not for us your orange carrots in plastic wrappers. Oh no! I’ll have a purple haze carrot, please, freshly pulled this morning.

Your prosaic beetroot is purple, pickled and in a glass jar? Ha! Mine is striped white and pink and still has a little bit of soil on that I just can’t shift…

And don’t even talk to me about your imported, rock-hard, bland supermarket tomatoes. Tomatoes! I don’t even know if those tasteless things deserve the name. Mine are heirloom and eaten as soon as I pull them off the stem.

Now, I say all this with my tongue firmly in cheek, but it is of course also true. The reality of veg growing is that you’re going to spend ages – months in fact – lovingly tending a seed to a seedling, planting it out into the soil, watering it every flipping day in this insanely hot weather, fighting the good fight to prevent it being completely devoured by slugs and finally, hopefully, getting a small crop from it, which is probably enough for a meal or two. Well, you don’t want to go through all that just to get a bog standard crappy variety of carrot that you could have picked up from your corner shop…

So, my desire for the unusual meant that I found a marketing email from Suttons seeds completely irresistible earlier this year. The email offered me the chance to buy some seeds from a wonderful veg I’d never even heard of before. A vegetable called the asparagus pea.

I love peas. I love asparagus. You’ve pretty much got me sold by the name alone.

As if the seed description had been written entirely to appeal to me, after saying the veg tastes like a cross between peas and asparagus, it went on to say that it is popular throughout Southeast Asia, a particular favourite spot of the world for me (though I have to mention that in the two years I spent living  / travelling there, I don’t think I ever came across one of these little beauties…)

And the joy of growing this amazing sweet, delicious-sounding vegetable that I couldn’t buy in any shop was the cherry on top of the cake.

So a packet was ordered and I cared for the little seeds lovingly.

I photographed the progress of my plantlings, already certain of success and the amazing blog article I would write, outlining my new discovery and the wonders of this magical plant.

The flowers are undeniably attractive, starting a dark, dark red:

asparagus pea flower bud
Oooh the excitement when I first saw a flower…

And then turning a bit lighter when they’re fully in bloom:

asparagus pea flower
I think they’re quite attractive with the flower peeping through the green leaves

And after the flower, they produce some wonderfully frilly and odd-looking “peas.”

Asparagus pea
Have you ever seen an odder looking vegetable?

But it was at this point that the story of the asparagus pea becomes a sad one. My first sign that all was not quite as I had imagined came when I went to check how I would know they are ready to pick. The seed packet told me I should harvest them while they are still less than 3cm (or 1 inch).

This seemed so ridiculously small that I thought it must be a misprint. I checked online. I found hundreds of florid descriptions of this wonderful vegetable, all ecstatic about its delicate taste and all saying that yes, indeed, it needed to be picked when they were less than 3cm long “otherwise they will taste too stringy.”

Hmmm. At a quick count, I am growing nine plants. Each of which has produced four or five peas. So, a total of 45 peas, tops. Peas that are less than 3cm long. I think if you ate the whole lot as a side with one meal that would probably be a reasonable amount to eat. For one meal only.

Still, not to worry, not to worry, for this one meal will clearly be a spectacular delicacy.

I picked the first five when they were ready and – following instructions from the internet – put them into a plastic bag in the fridge to wait for some more to be ready. Vigilantly, I checked the little asparagus peas every day. After a few days, a few more were ready. I picked them and went to add them to my bag…

…but the asparagus peas in the bag had wilted away to nothing.

Right, I thought to myself, time to eat these eight asparagus peas and see how wonderful they taste.

Asparagus peas
Ready for eating. A meal for a giant! (Excuse the iPhone pic…)

As the seed packet had instructed, I lightly boiled them, adding nothing else in order not to risk spoiling their delicate flavour (again, the pedant in me would point out that Southeast Asian cuisine is not world renowned for lightly boiling things and not adding flavour, but hey ho…)

Now, if only I had seen this article (and comments) on the cottage smallholder’s blog in advance, I would have been prepared for what awaited me.

The vegetable tasted neither of asparagus nor pea. Neither my partner nor I could put our finger exactly on what it did taste like.

He said, “It’s not quite as bad as unpleasant but it’s certainly not nice…”

Cardboard seems a little harsh, but there certainly wasn’t a distinctive flavour I could recognise. Perhaps the hard outside of a bean that’s grown very large would be the closest I could venture. Fibrous and green, but not, exactly, tasty.

So the lauded, beautiful and unusual asparagus pea spectacularly failed to live up to expectations. Often the way, isn’t it? Poor asparagus pea.

Ever the optimist, I’ve now taken to a daily examination of the cucamelons instead…*

One day he’ll be a grown up grape sized cucumber-watermelon mix

*Not a euphemism

Related articles:

  • My (tried and trusted) rhubarb is a far greater success: bounty from the weekend
  • And though I don’t necessarily recommend these seeds, my method of planting seeds in loo rolls has probably saved me a far bit of money over the course of this year…

7 thoughts on “The story of the asparagus pea

  1. I am with you and have grown some unusual veggies over the years. In fact I would buy seeds and also send them to my nieces and nephews so we could have bizarro gardens. Asperigus peas were not a hit ;( but the mini cubes were abig hit. Although one nephew said he thought they were too bitter. The rest of us felt like we were giants like Gulliver in Lilliput . Another friend didn’t think purple carrots tasted right because they were not orange.we also tried dragon breath beans and yard long beans. Another favorite it black pearl peppers which looks lovely in the flower beds. It has purple and green leaves and shiny black/purple round hot peppers

    1. It’s good to try the odd things isn’t it?! Are dragon breath beans Borlotti beans? If so I have some of them growing as well and they look really lovely. I’m just waiting for them to get really big before harvesting them… (This is how they looked a week ago.)

      I’ll have to look out for the black pearl peppers, I’ve just Googled them and they look amazing…

  2. Thanks for a hilarious posting. I will stick to the needle instead of the hoe. Love the pictures of the flower, too. I grow plants. to look at and eat grocery store stuff!

  3. Oh well … at least you tried them … put it down to life experience! We have Red Mustard here this year … not so exotic although Asian in origin too from what I can gather … I have masses of it with no idea what to do with it … any ideas? … Bee xx

    1. Oooh, I’ve never grown red mustard, I just Googled it and it looks lovely. I always but always end up using that sort of thing in endless stir fries! Must think of more inventive things to do… (The Sarah Raven website says you can eat it as a mini micro green, which always looks quite fun to me, but I guess yours are already too big for that?)

      1. Yeah they are massive, way past micro … stir fries it will be then … love your horse too … Bee x

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