Malabar spinach (botanical name Basella alba) is a perennial edible vine belonging to the family Basellaceae. This herb is native to the tropical regions of Asia and Africa, where people use it extensively as a leafy vegetable. While Malabar spinach has its origin in Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and New Guinea, over the years this plant has been supposedly naturalized in various other parts of the world, including tropical regions of Africa, China, Brazil, Columbia, Belize, Fiji, the West Indies and French Polynesia.
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Although Malabar spinach is not the true spinach, its foliage bears resemblance to the green leafy vegetable we all are familiar with and most of us eat. A member of Basellaceae family, Malabar spinach is mainly available in two cultivars - Basella alba and Basella rubra. While the stems and leaves of the former cultivar are deep green, those of the latter cultivar the stems are either pink or purplish and its leaves are deep green with pink hued veins.
The leaves of Basella alba are broad, fleshy, wide and they may be either oval or heart-shaped. Leaves of this Malabar spinach cultivar appear throughout the length of the vine. On the other hand, the leaves of Basella rubra are green with pink veins running over them. The stems of Basella alba and Basella rubra grow up to a height of anything between 8 inches and 12 inches (20 cm and 30 cm). However, the leaves, terminal tender as well as the stems of both cultivars can be harvested roughly 35 days to 45 days from the date of planting. If you are growing the plants from their seeds, they can be harvested after 50 days from the date of seeding.
The flowers of Malabar spinach are tiny and their color may vary from white to whitish-pink, subject to the species. The flowers give way to dark purple or black berries.
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Basella, also known as vine spinach, is a very popular tropical green leafy vegetable, which is widely cultivated in home gardens as a backyard plant. Different from the common spinach or English spinach (botanical name Spinacea oleracea), Malabar spinach is a creeping vine producing broad, glossy, deep green, mucilaginous and chunky leaves. This vegetable is usually found in the backyard gardens of many families in south Asia. Currently, the popularity of Malabar spinach is growing in a number of places in America, Europe and Australia having tropical and temperate climatic conditions. The succulent, green, tender stems of the herb, which are packed with nutrients, are gradually becoming well-accepted in several regions of the world.
Since Malabar spinach is a versatile green leafy vegetable, many people in East Asian culture hold it in high esteem, especially because of it high phytonutrient contents. This vegetable contains very less calories as well as fats. On the other hand, it is packed with unbelievably high vitamin, mineral as well as antioxidant contents.
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In fact, particularly the fresh leaves of the Basella rubra cultivar are an excellent source of numerous essential carotenoid pigment antioxidants like lutein, ß-carotene and zeaxanthin and working together these chemical compounds protect us against detrimental free radicals as well as reactive oxygen species (ROS). The antioxidants scavenge these harmful substances that are known to be responsible for our premature aging and many different disease processes, thereby protecting us from various health conditions and ailments.
The broad, plump leaves of Malabar spinach are an excellent source of mucilage (non-starch polysaccharide). Aside from these, the leaves and stems also contain dietary fiber. The mucilage present in the leaves promote smooth digestion, resulting in lower cholesterol absorption by the body. In turn, this will help in alleviating problems related to bowel movement.
The leaves as well as stems of Malabar spinach contain exceptionally high levels of vitamin A. Only 100 grams of fresh vine spinach leaves provide us with 8000 IU (international unit) of the recommended daily allowance of this nutrient. Our body requires vitamin A to maintain the health of the mucus membranes as well as the skin. At the same time, vitamin A is known to be necessary for good eyesight. It is believed that eating lots of natural vegetables as well as fruits that contain rich amounts of vitamin A and flavonoids protect us from a few cancer forms, especially those of the oral cavity and lungs.
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It is interesting to note that the vitamin C content of Basella or vine spinach is higher compared to the English spinach. A serving of 100 grams of fresh Malabar spinach offers 102 mg of vitamin C, which is almost equal to our recommended daily allowance (RDA) of this vitamin. As most of us are aware, vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that helps the body in reinforcing the immune system to effectively combat infectious agents as well as forage the detrimental free radicals and eliminate them.
Similar to the English spinach, even Malabar spinach is a wonderful natural source of iron, which is a vital trace element that is needed by our body to produce red blood cells (erythrocytes). At the same time, iron also serves as a co-factor for cytochrome-oxidase, an oxidation-reduction enzyme, during the cellular metabolic processes.
Malabar spinach also encloses substantial amounts of several B-complex vitamins, including vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), folate and riboflavin. A serving of 100 grams of fresh vine spinach leaves supplies us with 140 µg or 35 percent daily recommended allowance of folate for an adult human. In fact, the B-complex vitamin is among the most essential compounds required for production of DNA and overall growth. It has been found that any deficit of folates during pregnancy may possibly lead to neural tube flaws in the newborn child. Hence, pregnant as well as anticipating women need to incorporate plenty of fresh green vegetables, preferably foods like vine spinach, into their diet with a view to aid in preventing neural tube defects in the newborn.
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Aside from the above mentioned properties of Malabar spinach, these greens are also an excellent resource of several essential minerals like calcium, manganese, magnesium, potassium and copper. Potassium is a vital constituent of the cells as well as fluids in our body that aid in regulating the blood pressure and heart rate. On the other hand, our body uses copper and manganese as co-factors for superoxide dismutaste, an antioxidant enzyme.
Similar to the English spinach, consuming Malabar spinach on a regular basis also helps to avoid anemia caused by iron deficiency and osteoporosis (a condition wherein the bones become feeble). In addition, incorporating Malabar spinach into your diet may also help to protect you from serious conditions like cardiovascular disease and colon cancer.
Before using the Malabar spinach leaves for culinary purposes, it is essential to wash them thoroughly under cold running water to get rid on any sand/ girt from their surface. Dry them gently using any soft cotton cloth or a paper towel. Remove the hard stems and subsequently cut the leaves and slender stems to your desired length for adding them to various recipes. In fact, you can use Malabar spinach in the same manner as you use other seasonal green leafy vegetables like spinach, purslane and watercress. Nevertheless, since the leaves of Malabar spinach are very mucilaginous, they impart a dense, glue-like texture to the recipes in which they are used.
Below are a few tips on serving Malabar spinach:
People in India and neighbouring Bangladesh mix Malabar spinach (known as pui shaak locally) with other favourite greens to make a "saag" and add seafood or lentils to it. In fact, the flower as well as the seed heads (called pui seed) are also consumed. Usually they used to prepare different recipes with seasonal seafood.
People inhabiting the southern regions of India and Sri Lanka, Malaysia, China and Indonesia use the leaves and stems of Malabar spinach in various ways to make curries, soups, stews and other items that are consumed along with rice, roti (handmade bread) and even noodles.
On the other hand, people in the Philippines use Malabar spinach, which is locally known as alugbati, to prepare delicious stir-fries together with other vegetables and meat.
Basella or Malabar spinach is found growing naturally in India as well as in all places in the tropics, mainly in the humid lowlands. Although the deep green leaves of Basella bear resemblance to those of English spinach, this is actually a creeping vine plant that flourishes in areas having hot temperatures, even higher than 90°F. If the temperatures are cool, the plant will have a tendency to creep. Usually, this green is cultivated as an annual plant, but it can also grow like a perennial plant in places where there is no threat of frost.
Malabar spinach grows well in several different types of soils. However, this herb has a preference for damp fertile soil having lots of organic substances and a pH level of anything between 6.5 and 6.8. These plants have the aptitude to grow in partial shade. When grown in such light conditions the leaf size increases. However, Malabar spinach plants have a preference for hot, humid conditions with plenty of exposure to full sun.
In addition, Malabar spinach requires steady moisture with a view to put off flowering. It is important to prevent the plants from flowering because once they blossom, the leaves develop a bitter taste. For optimal growth, you should ideally grow Malabar spinach in places having a warm and rainy climate and provide them with adequate care.
Preferably you should make trellis and grow the Basella vines on them. Growing two such vines is enough to supply most families with the requirements for this green vegetable throughout summer and the subsequent fall, which are the growing seasons of this herb. In order to utilize the maximum space in your backyard garden, you can grow Malabar spinach on the trellis that is also being used to grow peas. Often people grow this plant as a decorative edible, and the vines of Malabar spinach can be made to grow over the doorways. If you want to prune your plants, just cut the chunky, succulent leaves while leaving behind some parts of the stem.
You can propagate Malabar spinach both from its seeds and cuttings. If you find that a stem has become too tough for consumption, simply cut it and plant it in the soil. Soon they will grow roots developing into a new plant.
Despite the fact that Malabar spinach leaves are loaded with numerous nutrients, including antioxidants, they also contain phytates as well as dietary fiber that may restrict the bio-availability of several minerals, including calcium, magnesium and iron.
Similar to the English spinach, Malabar spinach also encloses oxalic acid, which is found naturally in a number of vegetables. Inside our body, oxalic acid may sometimes crystallize to form oxalate stone in our urinary tract. Hence, people who have already been diagnosed of oxalate stones in their urinary tract should keep away from this vegetable. On the other hand, such people are advised to drink more water to maintain their normal urine flow.