Do not be fooled by the name. Malabar spinach, Basella alba, is not a relative of the spinach most people know and love (Spinacia oleracea). This imposter has fleshy, thick leaves that are juicy and crisp, with tastes of citrus and pepper––quite distinct from spinach. This spinach is an edible perennial vine that grows mostly in the tropical lowlands of Asia and Africa, but is also capable of surviving extended periods of drought. It is known under various common names, including Indian spinach, buffalo spinach, creeping spinach, boroboro, and Malabar nightshade.
Native to the Indian subcontinent, southeast Asia and New Guinea, it is reportedly naturalized in places from China, Fiji and tropical Africa to Brazil, Belize and Colombia. In the Philippines, the leaves are one of the main ingredients in an all-vegetable dish called utan. In many parts of India, it is used to make curries and saaga dishes, oftentimes in combination with jackfruit seed when used in Karnataka Cuisine. In Bengali, the cuisine is cooked into vegetable dishes, as well as many dishes with Ilish fish.
Malabar spinach requires adequate water during the growing season, but can survive four to twelve weeks of drought once it is well-established and is fairly resistant to pest and disease. It can grow well in a variety of soils, and has even been found throughout the Philippines in waste places.
Over a period of 75 days, it is possible to harvest and yield 40 kilograms of Malabar spinach leaves from a ten-meter square bed. With each harvest, many edible possibilities exist, as the young shoots and leaves can be eaten raw, cooked, or used to make tea; the mucilage can be used in soups and stews as thickening; and the purple color of the fruit and seeds are harmless and used to color vegetables and gelatinous substances, such as agar-agar.
Typical of leaf vegetables, Malabar spinach is high in vitamin C, iron and calcium, and a particularly rich source of soluble fiber. According to a study done by researchers the University of California, Davis’ Program in International Nutrition has positive effects in populations at risk of vitamin A deficiency.
Check out this recipe for a delicious curry dish containing Malabar spinach!
- ¾ cup black eyed beans/lobia/chawli
- 1 to 1.5 cup chopped malabar spinach leaves and stems (mayalu or valchi bhaji or pui shaak)
- ¾ cup to 1 cup fresh grated coconut/nariyal
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 small onion/pyaaz
- 1 medium tomato/tamatar
- 3 to 4 garlic/lahsun
- 1 tsp mustard seeds/rai
- a pinch of asafoetida/hing
- Salt, as required
For dry roasting the spices:
- 3 tsp coriander seeds/sabut dhania
- 2 tsp cumin/sabut jeera
- 3-4 black peppercorns/sabut kali mirch
- ¼ tsp fenugreek seeds/methi dana
- 2 to 3 dry red chilies/sookhi lal mirch
- Rinse and soak the black-eyed beans or chawli/lobia in enough water overnight or for 5 to 6 hours.
- Drain them and pressure cook the black eyed beans in 2 or 2.5 cups water along with salt, till they are cooked well and softened. They should not become mushy.
- Heat a small skillet or pan. Add all the whole spices and on a low heat dry roast them till aromatic.
- When the spices cool, add them to a grinder long with grated coconut.
- Add some water and make a smooth paste of the roasted spices with the coconut.
- Keep the coconut-spices paste aside.
- Lightly crush garlic in a mortar-pestle keeping the peels on it. Just crush them lightly; do not make a paste of them.
- Finely chop the onions and dice the tomatoes.
- Rinse and remove the leaves from the stems of the malabar spinach. Small leaves can be kept intact. Large leaves can be chopped.
- Cut the tender stems in 1 or 1.5 inch pieces. If the stems are not tender, you will have to cook them separately in water in a pan or pressure cooker, till they are cooked well.
- Heat oil in a pan. Crackle the mustard first.
- Then add the crushed garlic with their peels. Saute for 4-5 seconds
- Add onions and sauté till translucent. Add the tomatoes and coconut spice paste
- Stir and saute for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add the malabar spinach leaves and stems.
- Stir and add 1 to 1.5 cups stock or water. Season with salt and stir again.
- Simmer the curry for 6-7 minutes on a low to medium flame.
- Add the cooked black-eyed beans and simmer for 6-7 minutes or more, until all the flavors are well blended. You will see specks of oil on top of the curry when it is done.
- Add water if required if the curry looks thick and continue to simmer.
- The curry should be neither thick nor thin, but of medium consistency.
- Last, garnish the curry with chopped coriander leaves if you prefer.
- Serve the malabar spinach curry hot with steamed rice and chapatis.