Restaurants are clamoring for it. Brokers are bootlegging it. A national magazine is photographing it.

People are calling it the greatest new vegetable in 50 years, and the first shipment is scheduled to arrive in Washington before the weekend.

Its developers a conservative Idaho seed company, have called it the sugar snap pea-perhaps too modest a name for the super legume making its vegetable debut on the cover of this year's Burpee Seed company catalogue.

The enormous interest in sugar snap peas is surprising, since only a few thousand people hav ever sampled them, including members of the United States Senate.

Idaho Senator Frank Church arranged for some of the first harvest of the peas, grown in California this winter, to be distributed to all of his colleagues. And last week sugar snaps were the star attraction at a dinner Church and his wife, Bethine, gave for Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and a few new Senate colleagues.

But the Idaho peas-developed by Dr. Calvin Lamborn, research director of the Gallatin Valley Seed Co. in Twin Falls-would have been a huge success even without Senate sponsorship. They are far sweeter than even the earliest new pea of the spring, yet have only three calories in each pod-less than conventional peas. And much of their floavor, like that of the Chinese snow pea, comes from the shell; so the tedious job of shelling the peas is eliminated, making them more attractive to cooks. A quick stringing, with almost a single motion, eliminates the only part of the pea that isn't edible. Their fresh crunchy texture only adds to their sweetness. Sugar snaps might revolutionize children's attitudes towards vegetables.

Many foods that are so attractive have nutritional drawbacks-too many calories, too much fat, too much salt. Not sugar snaps. A three-ounce serving has about 45 calories, the fat is negligible, and the sodium content is low-10 milligrams per 100 grams. They also contain some Vitamin A, some C, a little of the B vitamins and a fair amount of potassium.

The sugar snaps are a cross between the standard pea and the snow pea. Gallatin was looking for a pea without as much waste as the ordinary pea when it came upon this "mutant," according to Lamborn. In a masterpiece of understatement, he explained that sugar snaps had "started out as a curiosity, and turned out better than we expected."

In fact, it was much better than anyone expected. Many garden supply shops are sold out of the seeds. And someone in California's Imperial Valley seems to be "bootlegging" the peas. This unnamed source has gotten his hands on a lot of Gallatin seed and has been selling the harvest in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But these bootlegged peas lack the cooking and eating directions that are supposed to accompany them, according to Willetta Warburg, who is handling the public relations for Gallatin.

As a result, she said, people are shelling them, overcooking them, and generally handling them as if they were ordinary peas, which they are not. "Someone is trying to ride on the coat-tails of Gallatin," Warburg said, though she acknowledged that anyone can market the peas. What they cannot do is propagate and sell them. Gallatin has the equivalent of a patent on the seeds for 17 years.

Though Warburg hasn't been able to track him down, a food broker in New York also appears to have a supply of these "bootlegged" peas, and one of Manhattan's fanciest markets, Balducci's, is selling them. Balducci's refused to say where it got them. The broker has also offered to sell sugar snaps to several New York restaurants, such as the pricey Four Seasons. This has Windows on the World "up in arms," according to Warburg. The restaurant atop the World Trade Center had been promised an exclusive on the sugar snaps, at least for a while.

On the other hand, Warburg noted, "It's nice to know the peas are so fantastic people are arguing over them." People magazine was in Twin Falls last week photographing a spread. "Good Morning America" is devoting a full segment to them. And various food gurus want to use them in their cooking classes.

The sugar snaps are expected to be available-on a very limited basis-in Washington area A & P stores this morning or tomorrow. Grand Union is expected to have them next week. A & P will be selling their limited shipment at 99 cents for a four-ounce container.

On the other hand, it's not too late to plant them, if you can find some in a garden shop. If not, they can be purchased through the Burpee catalogue, which just ordered another 10,000 pounds last week. A 2-ounce package is 75 cents; 1-2 pound, $2.45; 1 pound, $4.25, plus 65 cents handling. Send check or money order to Burpee Seed Co., 300 Park Ave., Warminster, Pa. 18991.

For the gardener, the sugar snaps have a few drawbacks. The vines are 6 feet tall so they do need support. They prefer a mild, acidic soil, prepared with bone meal or ash.

They should not be planted near onions, according to Meenehan's, a garden shop in Washington, because the onions have an adverse effect on the peas. The more sun they have the better, but they will grow in anything except total shade.

They should not be picked until mature if they are to be eaten raw, according to Lamborn. "Mature peas are better raw because they are sweeter," he explained. But "for cooking and freezing," he said, "take the peas that are not quite so mature." Canning, however, is not recommended.

Bethine Church, a pea picker from way back, doesn't think a lot of cooking is good for the peas and recommends only the briefest of steaming. She really prefers them uncooked, fresh out of the refrigerator as an alternative to a carrot stick-or a candy bar. So the sugar snaps the Churches served at their dinner were briefly steamed, seasoned with a little butter and salt. Fortunately there were more than enough, because the inclination when preparing them is to string one for the pot and one for yourself.

Can any vegetable really be that good? Ask Burpee. "Rarely does Burpee suggest so strongly that our customers try a new vegetable. But Sugar Snap is truly fantastic and deserves a place in your garden."

In addition to eating raw and steaming, sugar snaps make an excellent substitution for snow peas. Here is one simple method of preparing them Chinese style:


(4 servings) 1/2 pound sugar snap peas 1/2 cup whole water chestnuts 3 tablespoons vegetable oil Salt to taste

Wash peas. Slice chestnuts into thin rounds. Heat oil in skillet or wok. Add peas and mix until all the pieces are coated with oil. Season with salt. Mix and cook about 3 minutes. Add chestnut slices and mix again. Serve.