I used to grow vegetables in all-day sun. Then we moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and shade happened. On our new terrace in Harlem I had no idea, exactly, how much light we would have, come the longest days of summer.
But when we signed the lease last fall, the southern sun was already below the tall building just in front of us.
Photography by Marie Viljoen for Gardenista.
Above: It turned out that my Harlem terrace received only four hours of direct sun. With less sun, my edible plant palette shrank. Tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers were no longer an option, but I had hopes for leafy greens. Then one day last spring a chance encounter at the Union Square greenmarket made all the difference.
Above: Small pots planted with fleshy, glossy leaves caught my eye. Malabar spinach, said the label. It was May, that dangerous time of year when anything seems possible. I bought them, I planted them, and only then I did I do the research. (I know–but whoever said that a good gardener must be patient has it all wrong. Sometimes “Do first, ask later” lands you exactly where you need to be.)
Above: Malabar spinach has a long list of common names. Slippery vegetable, in Chinese. Amunututu in Yoruba (Nigeria). Ceylon spinach: modern Sri Lanka is the teardrop-shaped island at the tip of India. Malabar refers to a region in southwest India.
Common names are clues, indicating how a plant is used and where it occurs – in the tropics, in this case. Tropical plants are often used as houseplants in temperate regions: they are accustomed to warm temperatures and indirect light, growing naturally with competitors for sun. My new vining vegetable was no exception, which was good news for my Harlem garden.
Above: For a few weeks in May my seedlings just sat there at the base of their optimistic bamboo teepees, sulking. Then I went away, and when I returned in early July, their green stems, like young pythons, had coiled half way up their 6-foot supports. In another two weeks they had topped out and were leaning into space. I folded them down and made them climb up again. They hissed. I locked the terrace door.
Above: Botanically speaking, Malabar spinach has nothing to do with what most Americans call spinach. Its proper name is Basella alba (or Basella rubra, which has red stems). Spinach is Spinacia oleracea. Another big difference is that while regular spinach loves cool, even cold, weather, Malabar spinach will only wake up and grow when the days are warm, making it an ideal leafy green alternative for summer. And it is packed with vitamins.
Above: Now, in these waning days of the growing year, my vines have reached their peak and are so prolific and fat that we eat them a couple of times a week. Their ornamental value was very strong – with an unexpected bonus of glossy black fruit (which taste watery) – and I was reluctant to harvest them hard, sooner. But I know that when the first hard frost comes it will all be over. So now I make like a bunny and munch.
Above: The raw leaves make perfect wraps and edible plates for fillings and toppings, like super-fresh wild salmon, tossed at the last minute with quick-pickled celery hearts, lime juice, micro-planed ginger and lime zest. When I make Southeast Asian flavor bundles the leaves are perfect for folding around the fragrant, dripping filling and offer an excellent crunch, their slippery juice cooling a hot mouthful.
Above: When it came to cooking, at first I looked to India, tropical Asia and Africa for culinary inspiration. Leafy-beany stews with tomato and peanuts speak to West Africa, and the Chinese slippery vegetable works very well with soy, ginger and pinches of sugar. Indian saag was a natural choice. Taking inspiration from that complex spice mix, I riffed on an Israeli theme, sautéing the leaves and tendrils with shawarma spices. Delicious.
Shawarma Greens, for Two
These are excellent warm, eaten with a dollop of natural yogurt.
Bottle the leftover mixture in an airtight jar. It last many months and is divine with slow-roast lamb, chicken, or stirred into yogurt for dips.
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon sumac
- 2 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 star anise
- 5 cloves
- 5 cardamom pods
- ½ cinnamon stick
- ¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
- ½ whole nutmeg, grated
- ¼ teaspoon paprika
Whizz everything in a spice grinder till fine. Bottle at once.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, crushed and chopped
- 4 ounces Malabar spinach leaves and young stalks
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon schwarma spices
- Salt, a pinch
In a pan over medium heat warm the oil, and add the garlic. Sauté until translucent, then add the spinach. Raise heat to high and cook for a couple of minutes. Turn, and add the lemon juice and spices. Continue to cook until the leaves have collapsed but have not lost their bright color. Serve at once.
To grow your own, start seeds indoors, six weeks before the last frost, or sow outside when night time temperatures stay above 50 degrees F. Or buy rooted cuttings from your local farmers market and nursery.