What is This Vegetable?

One of the most beautiful things about getting a CSA box is the excitement of not knowing what will be in it, until you open it up.

It is little bit like Christmas, every weekend.

For the past two weeks, we have had a mysterious green in our box.

You can see it in the picture up there: it is a sturdy-leafed thing, with an earthy scent, rather akin to chard or beet greens. But leaves, which are glossy and emerald-colored, are very fleshy and stiff. When you break them open or cut into them, they are filled with a thick, viscous fluid that is reminiscent of the slithery juice of okra, but is not so slimy. In my eyes, it is more akin to aloe vera juice, but a little more runny, and with little flavor.

The flavor when it is raw is unusual; many people, because of the juice, don’t much care for it raw, but I didn’t think it was unpleasant. Though, I have to admit, thinking of an entire salad bowl of the fleshy, somewhat spongey-textured leaves didn’t make me want to grab the vinagrette. Most people prefer it cooked–and when I look at it and think rationally–I can see why.

What is it I am talking about?

Basella rubra, otherwise known in English as Malabar spinach.

It is not a true spinach, but it has been grown in warm areas of the US and Europe as a spinach substitute for years, because it is untroubled by the heat. Spinach will “bolt” in the heat of summer, which means that once it gets too warm for its comfort, the plant will rush to put out flowers and seeds, and then die. Spinach is a true cool-weather plant, and as such, can be a big problem crop in places in the US, like the South, where heat in the summer is a fact of life.

But, Malabar spinach is a tropical vine, originating in India, and as such, when the sun is broiling down and there are temperatures upwards of ninety degrees like we have been having recently here in Athens, it is perfectly at home, and will just keep growing, and growing, and putting out lovely verdant heart-shaped leaves like crazy.

And for those of us who like cooked spinach–it is a godsend.

The one drawback to the plants is that they do not like drought, so if one is growing it and the weather causes a dry spell, like the one that came with our heat wave, it appreciates extra watering attention. Dry areas do well with irrigating the plants, I am told.

Nutritionally speaking, this green is a powerhouse. Low in calories and carbohydrates, it is high in protein, calcium, iron and vitamin A, and has a moderate amount of vitamin C. One hundred grams of cooked Malabar spinach gives 5% the RDA of protein (that is a lot for a green vegetable) and 23% the RDA of vitamin A. It also gives 12% of the RDA of calcium–which is very good for a vegetable.

But, what is it like cooked?

It is virtually indistinguishable in flavor from spinach, though I can tell the difference by the texture. Spinach leaves are never as thick as Malabar spinach is. It stands up to heat better than spinach, which wilts as soon as flame touches the pan it is in; Malabar spinach also doesn’t shrink as much in volume as spinach does. (There is nothing more disheartening than to spend nearly an hour cleaning and picking tough stems from ten pounds of spinach only to watch it shrink down to virtually nothing when it is cooked. Trust me.)

The color of it cooked also gives it away to a careful observer. It is more of a brilliant green when cooked than spinach, which darkens considerably. Malabar spinach keeps its vibrant grass-green color for much longer in the pan.

I have read caveats online that caution against overcooking this green, as it can apparently go slimy. I am not sure what constitutes overcooking, however, so all I can say is when I cooked it tonight, it turned out very well, with no tendency towards sliminess in evidence.

How is it best cooked?

Well, having only used it as spinach in a sauteed pasta sauce, and cooked the way I cooked it tonight, I cannot say. But, I have to admit to liking the way I made it tonight better: I read online that it was cooked by the Bengalis with onion, chile and a little bit of mustard oil, so I improvised a recipe based around that very vague description. I have no idea if it really does taste like the way they cook it in the state of Bengal, but, it tasted good, and I will be cooking it this way again. Tonight it was a side dish beside my homemade baked macaroni and cheese. It was perfect, especially with a dollup of my Fresh Tomato Chutney Salad completing the meal. Look for that recipe tomorrow–it is a salady, chutney-like dish I used to make for my Pakistani personal chef clients that they really, really enjoyed.

Bengali Style Malabar Spinach

Ingredients:

1 pound Malabar spinach, washed, dried, with thick stems and veins removed
1 tablespoon butter or ghee
1 medium sized yellow onion, sliced thinly
2 Thai bird chiles, sliced thinly
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon mustard oil
Salt to taste

Method:

After the stems are removed from the greens, stack them up together in piles about 1/2″ thick, and cut crosswise into 1/2″ thick ribbons. Set aside.

Heat butter in a saute pan, and add onions and chiles, sprinkling well with salt. Cook, stirring, until the onions darken to a medium golden brown. Add garlic, and keep cooking until the garlic becomes golden and the onions are reddish.

Add cumin and musard seeds, and stir until mustard seeds start to pop. Add mustard oil, and the Malabar spinach, and cook, stirring, and shaking pan, until the leaves brighten in color and wilt. Sprinkle with a bit of water if the onions take on too much color or begin to scorch, and keep cooking until the onions are dark reddish brown, the cumin is deep colored and fragrant, and the greens are well-wilted and darkened somewhat.

Then, it is ready to serve. It goes well with mac n cheese, though I suspect it would also be nice with a full Indian meal, particularly one that included channa masala and maybe a nice raita, too.

27 Comments

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  1. I discovered this vegetable when it sprouted in my garden a few years back. Looking at the verdent vine (which also had a dark reddish tint), I just let it grow. It was good to see something do so well in the thick of Delhi’s summer. Then my Bengali maid pointed out that it was edible! So I asked her how I should cook it…I had no idea how rich it was in protein!

    It is truly delicious when you mix a bunch of vegetables (pumpkin, potatoes, green beans, carrots, onions etc. with this spinach) using the Bengali panch phoran (cumin, mustard, nigella, fenugreek, and fennel seeds) in mustard oil, similar to the way you cooked. The unusual aroma of this spice mix would bring everyone enquiring into the kitchen as to what special dish was I cooking!

    Comment by Anita — August 7, 2006 #

  2. Very fun. I’ve never seen or heard of this before.

    Comment by kalyn — August 7, 2006 #

  3. I love this – it’s sometimes available at the Asian markets here under the name saan choi (slippery vegetable). I like it scrambled with eggs. You are so lucky to find it in your CAS box!

    Comment by Diane — August 7, 2006 #

  4. This is also called Ceylon Spinach. In Srilanka, we cook it with dal. Mostly with Masoor Dhal. This reduces the slimyness.

    The other way of cooking this doesnt appeal to me. What you have to do is saute the onions, green chilies, some cumin, some fennel seeds, mustard seeds, curry leaves. Chop the spinach. Add to the sauteed mix. let it cook for a while. Add a little milk (originally ppl used to add thined out coconut milk. now they all use 2% milk.). Remove from heat after the spinach is cooked. sqeeze a little lemon juice, which enhances the flavours and reduces the sliminess. Our moms forced us to eat this dish saying that it would make us good mathematicians. more brain power you see. much like Okra. Okra could also be prepared this way.

    Comment by Mathy Kandasamy — August 7, 2006 #

  5. Anita–I found seeds for a red-tinted version available here, when I was researching it. I think it is cool that it came up wild in your garden!

    Kalyn–if you run across it, try it. It really does have a good flavor, and the nutritional profile is great.

    Diane–scrambled with eggs would be good! How do you cut it up for that?

    Mathay–ooh, Masoor Dal! I have another pound of it, that I could make with dal. (I love Masoor Dal with spinach anyway….) The other way of cooking you describe–eh–I am not sure if I would love that, either. The way I cooked it, there was no real sliminess in evidence–maybe I cooked it just long enough to avoid that.

    Comment by Barbara — August 7, 2006 #

  6. Thanks for the lovely recipe. I was wondering what you could do with the mystery greens besides sautee them with a little garlic! I agree that the thought of a salad full of the raw leaves might be a little much!

    Comment by risingsunofnihon — August 9, 2006 #

  7. thanks for the info. i have a hugh pot of this great veggie growing along side of a bitter melon plant i grew from a seed. can these two be cooked together? also does anyone want some bitter melon seeds? thanks jean

    Comment by jean — September 21, 2007 #

  8. It is great in soup too! Vietnamese use crush dried shrimp to make the soup base. That’s pretty much all you need…maybe a little salt (or fish sauce).

    Comment by s.m. — September 27, 2007 #

  9. I’m growing this right now and like to eat the vine tips, picked right off the plant!

    I tried cooking it. I won’t make that mistake again, but that’s just me. The texture was nasty, and the flavor wasn’t much better.

    Comment by rph3664 — August 12, 2008 #

  10. I am so geeked-up–I saw this post earlier today while searching for your chana masala recipe, and then saw this very vegetable in person tonight at Patel Bros.! I swear, I’m going to take a notebook in there next time and write down every produce item I’m unfamiliar with, then come home and research it. They all looked so fascinating, and so good.

    Comment by Laughingrat — March 16, 2009 #

  11. I have grown Malibar spinach for years. I used in:

    fresh salads; mixed with other greens

    put on sandwiches (much more healthy than the traditional iceburg lettuce!)

    Comment by jana — June 16, 2009 #

  12. Great ideas to use Malabar spinach. Thank you. I planted it as a substitute for spinach because of our hot South Texas climate. I got the seeds from a wonderful Asian seed catalog (Kitazawa)out of California. All their greens have done really well in the garden.

    Comment by Kathryn — July 6, 2009 #

  13. I grows well in the humid heat we have here in Ohio, too! Glad you like the recipes!

    Comment by Barbara — July 6, 2009 #

  14. I’ve planted malabar from seed this year, and I have an abundance of this tasty green here in Charlotte, NC where the plants did spectacular this year. I ordered the seeds from Baker Creek.

    Comment by Doug — September 5, 2009 #

  15. What was the source for the red seeds? Rubrus, right? I could not find them at my local big nursery.

    Comment by Julie V — April 1, 2010 #

  16. I’ve grown Malabar Spinach for twenty or thirty years now. It makes good cooked greens, especially if you dilute the mucilaginous quality by mixing it with other greens, like Swiss Chard. OTOH, I do not find it to be a substitute for raw spinach, at all. YMMV (but I doubt it). It is a pretty plant, good enough to be grown as an ornamental, with few pests (grasshoppers and snails can be problems, but even they have a hard time keeping up with this plant’s robust growth).

    One problem that I have encountered: if you harvest it too heavily, or cut it back too much, the plants can lose vigor. Mine did not recover, lingering on, but being sickly for the rest of the season.

    Comment by Donald Heskett — April 2, 2010 #

  17. stuff the big leaves (rolling them up sideways after cutting the stem out in a v-shape) with cooked rice and raw meat with herbs, etc. arrange in a pyrex dish and add a little water to the bottom. bake long enough for the water to steam the meat and leaves. very good!

    Comment by Tina — August 27, 2010 #

  18. I just made a salad of raw Malibar leafs, kale, lettuce, green onions,scredded beet and avo w.a bit of olive oil, Braggs, nutritional yeast and freshly black ground pepper and toasted sesame seeds on top and it was FANTACTIC !!!

    Comment by Jette Slater — September 23, 2010 #

  19. I was at a loss as to how to prepared this vegetable, as this was the first year for me to ever have a vegtable garden.So its been a huge expernce making meals using all the different things in our garden.I used the recipe found at the top of the blog, but added cherry tomatoes from my garden and bits of bacon..omgoodnes what a treat! I think next time I will try it over some couscous. Thank you so much for sharing your recipes!

    Comment by Kerrie — September 25, 2010 #

  20. Kerrie–all recipes are improved with bacon and fresh tomatoes……

    Comment by Barbara — September 25, 2010 #

  21. Barbara,

    I found your article on Malabar spinach interesting. I have grown it for many years as a staple crop here on my Missouri, USA homestead and find it a versatile and delicious vegetable. My husband and I love it raw or cooked equally – even as a huge pile of fresh chopped leaves in our salads! (Of course we are really into lots of exotic greens that most Americans have never heard of in our salads. We particularly like incorporating chopped herbs and wild greens like lamb’s quarter and greenbriar tips.)

    Malabar is great cooked too – added to omelettes and stirfrys as well as salads.

    I am just about to go out to my garden and harvest a few bushels full of it to put in my pickling crocks. Apparently in Tibet, monks have fermented and then dried various greens for centuries as a way of preserving them. We did not know of this technique until this year and are anxious to try it. Since cabbage moth larvae and heat pretty much destroyed all our brassicas this year, we are going to experiment with malabar instead. (If you can brine things as mucilaginous as okra and prickly pear cactus pads – nopalitos – I figure malabar is at least an equally good candidate.) I know about fermenting of course – as in sauerkraut and kim chee – but the drying after fermenting is new. I will let you know how it turns out.

    Deborah

    Comment by Deborah — September 29, 2010 #

  22. Oops! Forgot to mention that anyone interested in incorporating interesting new greens into their diet should try sweet potato leaves. Yes LEAVES. They are both highly edible and delicious. In many parts of the world, the sweet potato is grown for the leaves, not the tubers. We Americans have been missing out on a great thing for years. They are another green well adapted to hot weather and will produce all you can eat in 100 degree plus heat without breaking a sweat. Enjoy!

    Comment by Deborah — September 29, 2010 #

  23. Yes! I agree Malabar Spinach is a great new substitute for other fresh salad greens.

    Yes! It holds up well for many days after it’s been harvested.

    Yes! It is delicious, with a crisp “bite” and wonderful flavor.

    And yes, when cooked it takes on a spinachy texture and okra-lovers will delight in it’s final notes.

    But NO NO NO…it is not spinach and it is rather unfair to paste our western sentiments on this far east vegetable that has millions (maybe billions now) all across the orient.

    You know. The orient. Korea, India, Ceylon, China. Those thousand year-old plus cultures. Big grin.

    My family loves it all kinds of ways, in soups, in salads, steamed, blah blah, blah blah…

    But I never refer to it as that “other name”. I simply call it Malabar. It is almost voting day, and the trellis outside my Savannah GA front door is still making an impressive show of this prolific vine.

    Wanna know. Go to You Tube and search using that “other name”. Or click on this link to see others state their opinions ’cause I’m kinda bias.

    Farewell, and healthy eating to y’all.

    Mr Donald

    Comment by DonTee — October 26, 2010 #

  24. You can take cuttings of Malabar spinach; it roots easily!

    Comment by Becki — November 9, 2010 #

  25. cant still identify this in india..will someone tell me the malayalam or tamil equivs=thanks

    Comment by satchit k — December 2, 2010 #

  26. Satchit K : In tamil it is Pasalai Keerai, in malayalam it is vassala something.

    Comment by man — January 12, 2011 #

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