The Malabar Spinach, native to Asia has still not caught on in the way it should have. A leaf that is loved by both the Mangalorean (basale) and Bengali (poi saag) communities, as well as the Vietnamese, Indonesian and Chinese, is still a bit difficult to find in my local market in Mumbai. The sabziwalahs that stock it are the ones with fewer special ingredients that other communities don’t cook with often. While it’s best during the monsoons, the Malabar Spinach is found all round the year now. It grows quickly, can grow vertically, and its thick, lustrous heart-shaped leaves stand out from the other variety of spinach in the market. The Malabar Spinach creeper yields white flowers and purple black berries, so if you wish to grow it at home in a kitchen garden, you should.
I bought one sizeable bunch of these leaves from the market for a mere 30 Rs., and used it three ways at home. The first borrows from a Bengali chorchori wherein I used a mixture of pumpkin and yam or Elephant’s foot with chopped malabar spinach stems, leaves, plus a green chilli and poppy seed paste. The second, adapted from a Veg Recipes Of India recipe with chowli or black eyed peas cooks it like a curry with freshly grated coconut and tamarind. The last are simple fritters cooked with any leftover leaves you may have. You can also use leftover Mayalu greens in a stir-fry in place of your usual Chinese greens.
The Chorchori can be a mix of different vegetables, not just pumpkin and yam, but also potatoes, gourds and eggplant. You can also add prawns to this chorchori if you like, or a fish head too. Fry the prawns separately and add to the sabzi, if using.
Mayalu/ Poi Saag 1/2 kilo, tender stems cut into 1 inch pieces and leaves chopped into 1/2 into 1 inch pieces
Suran or Yam 250g, cubed
Pumpkin 250g, cubed
Green chillies 2, slit lengthwise and chopped
Mustard seeds 1 tbsp
Poppy seeds 1 tsp
Panch phoron 1 tsp
Turmeric powder 1/2 tsp
Sugar 1 tsp
Mustard oil 1 tbsp
Make a paste of the mustard seeds and the poppy seeds.
Heat the mustard oil in a kadai and when it is smoking, add in the panch phoron. Let it crackle and add the green chillies immediately. Let the chillies sit for a few seconds at the most in the hot oil before you add in the mayalu or poi saag. Stir everything together and cover the kadai with a lid.
Let it cook for about 5-10 minutes. Uncover and add in the turmeric and red chilli, stir and let it sit again over low flame for another 5-10 minutes until the vegetables release their water.
Before all the water dries up, add the poppy seed and mustard seed paste and cook over a high flame for about 4-5 minutes. Check for salt and transfer to a serving bowl, and serve with fresh rotis.
For the second recipe, a black bean curry with the Malabar spinach, finishing the curry with a small lime-sized ball of soaked tamarind paste adds another layer of flavour to the dish.
Chawli 1/2 cup, rinsed and soaked overnight
Mayalu/ Poi Saag 1 cup, leaves chopped, tender stems cut into 1-inch pieces
Grated coconut 1 cup
Neutral oil 1 tbsp
Onion 1 large, finely chopped
Tomato 1-2 medium-sized, diced
Garlic 4-5 cloves, minced
Mustard seeds 1 tsp
Asafoetida a pinch
Tamarind one lime-sized ball, soaked in 1 tbsp water, then crushed with your hands to form a paste
Coriander seeds 3 tsp
Cumin seeds 2 tsp
Black peppercorns 4-5
Fenugreek or methi seeds 1/4 tsp
Dry red chillies 2-3
Start by pressure-cooking the black eyed peas with enough water and some salt. Pressure cook them till they are soft, but with a bite to them.
In a pan, add the spices together and dry roast them till they are fragrant. Transfer the spices to a mixer grinder together with the coconut. Add some water to the mixer grinder and blitz to make a fine paste. Set this aside.
Heat the oil and once hot, add in the mustard seeds and let it crackle for a few moments. Add the mixed garlic and saute it for a few seconds before adding in the onions. Saute this till translucent, before following with the tomatoes and the coconut paste. Let this cook over a high flame for 2-3 minutes before adding the Malabar spinach leaves and stems to the gravy. Stir this, and add in one cup of water. Season with salt and let all the flavours combine together over medium heat for 7-8 minutes at least. Add in the black beans and once again let it simmer for 7-8 minutes. Stir in the tamarind paste now and adjust the consistency with a bit more water if you like. Finally, salt the curry if needed, and serve.
Garnish with chopped coriander and serve with rice or chapatis.
Mayalu Spinach Fritters
This recipe is great to use with any leftover Malabar spinach still lying around. Serve with hot chai.
Makes about 12 fritters
Malabar Spinach/ Poi Saag 12 thick large leaves, separated from its stem
Besan or gram flour 1 1/2 cup
Turmeric 1/2 tsp
Soda 1/2 tsp
Vegetable Oil for deep-frying
Mix together the besan/gram flour with a bit of water to form a thin custard-like batter. Add the salt and turmeric, then add the baking soda and combine everything together with a whisk.
Heat the oil for deep-frying in a kadai. Test if the batter is hot enough by dropping a little dot of batter into the oil. If it forms into a golden ball of dough and rises to the top, the oil is hot enough. Dip each leaf, in the batter, shaking the excess off and lower it in the hot oil.
Keeping some paper towels ready, drain them once the fritters are golden, and serve immediately.