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Akara pea pups: High protein hush puppies

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

University of Georgia food scientists are working to introduce akara, a popular West African food, to U.S. consumers through the frozen food and fast food markets.

Similar to hush puppies, akara is made from deep-fried cowpea (black-eyed pea) paste.

"Most Southerners are accustomed to eating black-eyed peas, which are a member of the cowpea family," said Kay McWatters, a food scientist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Fried black-eyed peas?

"The varieties we grow in the Southeast are typically used as a fresh or frozen vegetable for boiling," she said. "So eating black-eyed peas in the form of a fried food would be a new experience."

Akara's major drawback has been its high fat content, she said. But UGA's newest formulations have solved that problem.

Sarah Page Patterson, a recent UGA food science graduate, has developed an akara formulation that has reduced its fat content significantly.

"Our early akara formulations contained 31.8 percent crude fat (dry weight basis) compared to 25.6 percent of crude fat for the fried cornmeal hush puppies from a fast food restaurant," McWatters said. "Now, we've reduced the fat by adding corn starch. And our akara pea pups are in line with the fat content of hush puppies and french fries (21 percent crude fat)."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that fried foods have been unaffected by the nutrition revolution, and the french fry is still the most consumed fast-food item, McWatters said.

Packed with protein

Although they will never be considered a low-fat food, akara pea pups are much better nutritionally than their Southern hush puppy counterparts.

"Akara's protein content (22 percent) is twice that of hush puppies (10 percent) and almost three times that of french fries (8 percent)," McWatters said. "It's a good source of proteins and B vitamins and minerals."

A federal program, the Bean-Cowpea Collaborative Research Support Program, funds UGA's akara project. The goal of this project is to broaden the way Americans view and eat beans and cowpeas.

Akara is a staple in many people's diets in West African countries. But it's relatively unknown in the United States.

Beany flavor

"It resembles a hush puppy as it has a crisp crust and a bready interior," she said. "But akara has a much higher protein content than a cornmeal hush puppy because of its legume base."It has a pleasing, beany flavor, McWatters said. It's typically seasoned with salt, minced onion and either bell or hot peppers.

2CA3

Make your own
pea pups

Past consumer tests conducted by UGA food scientists have found that Americans like akara because of its ethnic appeal. These surveys also show Americans would best accept akara as a fast food or a fully cooked, frozen, reheatable item.

UGA researchers have found that several cowpea varieties can be used to make akara that closely resembles the traditional black-eyed pea product in texture and flavor."We've used black-eyed, crowder, pink-eye purple hull, white eye (California cream) and white acre," McWatters said.

UGA researchers are working with Inland Empire Foods of Riverside, Calif., to introduce akara through frozen-food and convenience-food markets.

"Inland is particularly interested in the all-white cowpea because it doesn't have any black-eyes -- therefore, the dehulling step can be eliminated," she said. "They currently use peas, beans and other legumes in convenience-type foods and make a whole line of dry soup mixes that need only hot water to rehydrate."

McWatters and her colleagues have worked on the fat reduction aspects of this project for the past two years. They're eager to see akara hit the market.

"Most of our efforts have been toward tailoring this production for the food service industry, particularly restaurants and institutions," she said. "We'd love to see it hit the fast food market, too."

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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