July 11, 2020

Reliably Yours, Malabar Spinach

Green-stemmed Malabar spinach
(Basella alba) climbing a wall

Malabar spinach is in its full glory, and that's how I know summer has arrived. What I prize about Malabar spinach is that the leaves are always on standby, ready to be picked. It is a perennial green, which can be harvested year round in south Florida. A few years ago, during the summer, I let it run rampant over the top of a loquat tree. It was a beautiful sight to behold. Even out of season, its leaves continue to grow. In early fall, when the arugula, kale, and lettuce are just getting started, I can count on the Malabar spinach to augment an otherwise paltry salad. As the vine grows longer, the older leaves may start to look a little ragged, especially those that are lying on the ground. At that point, I harvest the younger leaves. The older leaves still form a lovely mat and will eventually die back, adding some fertility into the soil. Nothing goes to waste. Because they stay out in the yard on a vine, Malabar spinach leaves will never rot in my refrigerator, and I never have to worry about using them up. Such a mindset changes my ruminations about what I might make for dinner. It gives me more freedom with meal planning; no matter what's going on in my refrigerator, there's almost always some Malabar spinach out in the yard.

Sometimes I eat the young tips, but I tend to focus on the leaves - large or small, young or old. Although the name might imply otherwise, Malabar spinach is not a type of spinach. It doesn't feel, taste, or look anything like spinach, but it can be used in exactly the same manner. However, where spinach turns bitter, gets tough, or dies back in the summer; Malabar spinach shifts into high gear. If you give it the basic amount of water it needs and it has found a happy spot, it will vine, curl, climb, twine, and otherwise spread over whatever might be in its path toward the sun.

Malabar spinach leaves are fairly bland. If they have gotten sufficient water, they might be thick with a delicate crunch. They are slightly mucilaginous. I add them to a salad for their texture and not for their flavor. I prefer to keep the Malabar spinach leaves to less than a third of the greens in any given salad, so that I can appreciate the texture without being overwhelmed by it. Consider that an opinionated person's opinion.  

Malabar spinach holds up well when cooked. Trim away tough stems. Chop the leaves and tender stems to the desired length and add to any recipe that calls for spinach. Add them to a stir fry, an omelet, or potato pancakes. In dishes where you want a slightly thicker consistency - in soups, curries, or smoothies - Malabar spinach may be just the ingredient you are looking for. If you grow Malabar spinach in the shade, you may get some leaves that are as big as your hand, which you can use to wrap around the stuffing of your choice. You can eat the wrap raw or you can tie it up and steam, fry, or bake as desired.
Create your own Malabar spinach wrap. This
one will have vegan cheese, everglades tomatoes,
red rice w/beans, and a cactus peanut sauce

If you prepare food for children (or others) who avoid vegetables, mild Malabar spinach leaves are an easy green to sneak into a snack or meal. When you make a fruit smoothie with a few Malabar spinach leaves, your eyes will see a change in color, but your taste buds will be none the wiser . A small amount of Malabar spinach cooked into a spicy dish will generally go entirely unnoticed.

As far as nutitional benefits, Malabar spinach is high in iron, calcium, Vitamin C and Vitamin A. It is a good source for some antioxidants including lutein and beta carotene. Some say the soluble fiber in its mucilaginous leaves aids digestion (others argue that your results may vary). I would put Malabar spinach in the category of plants with many uses in traditional medicine, but unproven health benefits as far as scientific research goes.

Red-stemmed Malabar spinach
(Basella rubra)
How do I manage to keep Malabar spinach at my beck and call? It didn't start out that way. I first rooted a cutting of the green-stemmed variety and planted it in a spot that got a reasonable amount of sun. It grew nicely, let me harvest a bit, but then wilted and died back. I thought maybe I'd try the red-stemmed variety, which I find to be strikingly attractive. It grew slowly, put out some rather small leaves, and shortly went to seed. Once they've gone to seed, they no longer do much in the way of leaf production. My sweetheart was intent on growing this hot-weather-friendly green, so he put up a small trellis on a wall, the upper end of which was in the sun. We planted in an irrigated spot just underneath. Everything looked perfect, but the Malabar spinach did not find the trellis to its liking. No matter how many times I directed its growth up the trellis, it flopped back down toward the ground. Finally, unbeknownst to me, it snaked along the ground under and around a jaboticaba tree and out into a patch of sunlight. It has flourished, and I haven't done anything since. In my yard, the Malabar spinach finds its happy spot, grows a beautiful mat for several months, and then moves on. I believe that if I provided more water, it would happily stay in one spot, the leaves would get more substantial, and it wouldn't wilt so much during a hot, dry summer afternoon. That's what I'd recommend, even if I don't follow my own recommendations.

Look closely to see a malabar
spinach vine starting to climb up
from under a surinam cherry 
tree. It will be covering the
tree before you know it
Although Malabar spinach is a perennial in Florida and other warm weather areas, it doesn't tolerate frost. The best time to plant is in the spring, a couple of weeks after all danger of frost has past. Cuttings root easily. Seeds germinate in one or two weeks. Malabar spinach is rarely troubled by pests or diseases, and it out-competes weeds quite nicely. Its succulent flesh helps it to survive a mild drought, and it will tolerate heavy rains as well. Your main job is to keep it well watered throughout the summer. It may grow dramatically following a good downpour, especially if it's been dry for a while. If it does grow vigorously, your secondary job is to keep it pruned back to your liking. From firsthand experience, I can attest that it is a much bigger undertaking to pull all the Malabar spinach off a loquat tree, once it has wound its stem around individual branches.

Is Malabar spinach native to Malabar? That's a bit of a trick question, but if you enjoy etymology or geography, keep reading. I was interested in why English speakers call this plant Malabar spinach. Where is Malabar anyway? As I am sitting in Florida, Google Maps shows me that Malabar is on the east coast of Florida. Not the right Malabar. Malabar spinach is also known as Ceylon spinach. Ceylon is the country now called Sri Lanka. I add India to my Google Maps query. Google Maps displays many businesses in India with Malabar in their name. I'm probably on the right track. It turns out there is no country named Malabar. There is a Malabar Island in the Indian Ocean, which is very far from everywhere and about ten square miles in area. This seems an unlikely source for Malabar spinach. There is a Malabar area in West Java, Indonesia. But if Malabar spinach came from there, it would probably be called Java spinach. There is a large area on the southwest coast of India called the Malabar Coast, which has been a major trading center since about 3000 BC. Etymologists disagree as to the provenance of the name Malabar, but I'm going with the one that divides the name into two parts. From Wikipedia on 07/10/2020: 
The second part of the name is thought by scholars to be the Arabic word barr ('continent') or its Persian relative bar ('country'). The first element of the name, however, is attested already in the Topography written by Cosmas Indicopleustes in the sixth century CE. This mentions a pepper emporium called Male, which clearly gave its name to Malabar ('the country of Male').
Indeed, Malabar (black) pepper is grown along the Malabar Coast. Now I can place Malabar and its black pepper as a prominent player in the Maritime Spice Routes. If Malabar spinach is native to the Malabar Coast, then English speakers named the plant after a place that was named after a different plant that was cultivated there. So sometimes outsiders name a region based on a plant that grows there. Sometimes outsiders name a plant based on the region where it grows. In the case of Malabar, both may be true.

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