Red spinach is a worthy addition to one’s diet
Cooked amaranth leaves are a good source of vitamins C and A, iron and other essential minerals, bes >
By Anushruti RK
Of all the edible leaves available in the market, the vibrant colours of amaranth or Amaranthus dubius, also known as red spinach, Chinese spinach or yin choy (in Chinese) stand out in particular. Red spinach is a member of the plant family Amaranthaceae, which includes nearly 2,500 species ranging from spinach to beetroot to grains such as amaranth and quinoa.
Belonging to the Amaranthus genus, red spinach is nearly identical to its green cousin Amaranthus viridis, also known as slender amaranth. It is difficult to trace the origins of the leaves but renowned food historian KT Achaya writes in A Historical Companion to Indian Food that the Amaranthus tricolour, a salad leaf in beautiful hues of green, pink, brownish red and bright red, is probably of Indian origin. Being closely related to red spinach it’s likely that the latter has also been used in Indian cuisine for a long time.
Red Runs Deep
Unrelated to spinach but known to contain thrice the calcium and five times the niacin content of spinach, red amaranth has oval leaves with deep red veins running through it. According to Harold McGee’s On Food And Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, the plant pigments responsible for colouring these leaves are red and yellow betaines, which also colour other vividly hued vegetable such as beets and chards. Betaines are important nutrients as they regulate the body’s chemical functions.
The red amaranth plant is streaked all over with splashes of red and purple. Slightly acerbic and crunchy when raw, the leaves soften and tone down in flavour when cooked, acquiring a rich, smooth and earthy texture in the process. The young leaves and stems of red amaranth are used raw in salads in southeast Asia. Mature leaves are extensively used in stir fries across Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Vietnam and China, using very few spices and embellishments to highlight the hearty flavour and tender chewy texture. Betaines impart a beautiful, ruby red hue to the dish, which makes it more attractive.
Red spinach is much loved in Bengal where a traditional meal has to have a leafy vegetable on the side. Here, it is known as lal shaak and is cooked with a seasoning of panch phoran (the Bengali five spice mix) in a mustard oil. In Maharashtra and Goa laal maat or tambdi bhaji is cooked with a simple seasoning and garnished with lots of coconut. The treatment is again different in Tamil Nadu, where amaranth leaves are steamed and mashed with a light seasoning of salt, red chillies and cumin to make a popular dish called keerai masiyal. In Karnataka, where it grows abundantly, locals widely use these leaves (known as rajgiri or kempu harave soppu) to make preparations like huli (a dal and vegetable curry-like preparation eaten with rice), palya (a dry vegetable curry) and majjige huli (a sour and spicy curdbased preparation). It is also used in Kerala cuisine to make cheera aviyal, in which the stems and leaves of red spinach are used to make a tangy curry eaten with rice, as well as coconut-laced thoran.
A Healthy Option
Being such a versatile ingredient, red spinach is also increasingly finding its place in contemporary cooking. The mild earthy flavour of the leaves makes them perfect in salads, pasta sauces, sandwiches and wraps. The leaves can be used in stir fries or simply sautéed and served with grilled fish. They also make a great stuffing for ravioli. Red spinach has seen a renewed interest among health aficionados in recent times. Cooked amaranth leaves are a good source of vitamins C and A, iron and other essential minerals, besides being low in calories. To prevent the loss of nutrients it’s best if they are not overcooked but added right in the end while making soups and stews. They are also the perfect garnish, adding colour to any dish. Much before red spinach was commercially cultivated people in South India would go to great lengths to get it from the forests. Cooked simply or in more elaborate preparations, the unpretentious, mild flavour and slightly gritty-yet-succulent texture of the leaves is sure to leave a mark in your memory.
Fettucine with laal maat, blue cheese and walnuts
Serves 2; Cooks in 30 minutes
Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a pan, add 2 tbsp chopped onions and 1 tsp chopped garlic. Saute till onions become translucent. Add 50 gm of cleaned washed and chopped laal maat leaves and mix well. Add ½ cup of red wine and simmer until the wine is reduced to half. Add 1 cup of cream, 1 tbsp of chopped oregano, salt and pepper. Put 100 gm boiled fettucine in the cream sauce and toss well. Add 1 tbsp chopped parsley. Put the fettucine in a serving plate top with blobs of blue cheese and sprinkle 1 tbsp toasted walnuts on top.