Basella or vine spinach is a popular tropical leafy-green vegetable, commonly grown as backyard herb in the home gardens.
Vine-spinach belongs to the Basellaceae family and has two chief cultivars, Basella alba, which features green- stems and deep-green leaves, and Basella rubra with purplish stems and dark green leaves with pink veins.
It is native to South Asia, probably originated in the monsoon fed tropical regions of Malabar Coast of India and Sri Lanka. In Asia, basella identified by different names in countries. Some of the common names for this herb are Ceylon spinach, Malabar spinach, saan choy (Chinese), mong toi (Vietnamese), alugbati (Philippines), pui saag (Bengali), remayong (Malay), etc.
It is different from English spinach (Spinacea oleracea) in that the vine spinach is a creeping vine with bright, broad, dark green, thick, and mucilaginous leaves. Although commonly featuring in many backyards across South Asian families, it slowly gaining popularity in some of the tropical and temperate climates of America, Australia, and Europe for its lush, nutritious greens, and tender stems.
Malabar spinach is a perennial vine and grown as annual or biennial pot-herb. It prefers hot, humid climate and moist, fertile, well-drained soil to flourish. Stem cuttings about the length of 20 cm preferred over seeds for natural propagation, and faster growth. Being a vine, it requires trellising for its spread. It bears white or white-pink color tiny flowers depending upon the species and purple to black color berries.
Basella-alba features thick, fleshy, broad, oval to heart-shaped leaves all along its vine length. Basella rubra has pink or purplish stems and pink color veins running across its leaves. In either case, fleshy greens and terminal, tender 8-12 inches stem harvested about 35 to 45 days after planting (about 50 days after seedling).
Basella is one of versatile leafy green vegetable and revered in some East Asian cultures for its wholesome phytonutrient profile.
Basella is very low in calories and fats (100 grams of raw leaves provide just 19 calories). Nonetheless, it holds an incredibly good amount of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Fresh leaves, particularly of basella rubra, are rich sources of several vital carotenoid pigment anti-oxidants such as ß-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin. Together, these compounds help act as protective scavengers against oxygen-derived free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS) that play a healing role in aging and various disease processes.
Its thick, fleshy leaves are an excellent source of non-starch polysaccharide, mucilage. In addition to natural fiber (roughage) that found in the stem and leaves, its mucilaginous leaves facilitate in smooth digestion. Fiber diet brings a reduction in cholesterol absorption, and help prevent bowel problems.
Vine spinach leaves and stem are incredibly rich sources of vitamin A. 100 g fresh leaves provide 8000 IU or 267% of recommended daily allowance (RDA) of this vitamin. Vitamin-A required for maintaining healthy mucus membranes and skin, and essential for good eyesight. Consumption of natural vegetables and fruits rich in vitamin-A and flavonoids has been thought to offer protection from the lung and oral cavity cancers.
Basella has more vitamin C content than English spinach. 100 g of fresh greens contains 102 mg or 102% of daily recommended levels of vitamin-C. Vitamin-C is a powerful antioxidant, which helps the human body develop resistance against infectious agents and scavenge harmful oxygen-free radicals.
Likewise in spinach, basella too is an excellent source of iron. 100 g fresh leaves contain about 1.20 mg or 15% of daily intake of iron. Iron is an essential trace element required by the human body for red blood cell (RBC's) production. Additionally, this element acts as a co-factor for the oxidation-reduction enzyme, cytochrome oxidase, during the cellular metabolism.
It also contains good amounts of many B-complex vitamins such as folate, vitamin-B6 (pyridoxine), and riboflavin. 100 g fresh leaves provide 140 µg or 35% of folates. This vitamin is one of the essential compounds for DNA production and growth. Folate deficiency in during very early stages of pregnancy might results in the neural tube defects in the newborn baby. Anticipating and pregnant women are, therefore, advised to include a lot of fresh greens in their diet to help prevent neural tube defects in the offspring.
Further, basella leaves are good sources of minerals like potassium (11% of RDA/100 g), manganese (32% of RDA/100 g), calcium, magnesium, and copper. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure. Manganese and copper used by the human body as a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase.
Akin to spinach, regular consumption of basella (Malabar spinach) in the diet helps prevent osteoporosis (weakness of bones), iron-deficiency anemia. Besides, it is believed to protect the body from cardiovascular diseases and cancers of the colon.
Fresh Malabar spinach can be readily available in the tropical belt all round the seasons. However, in the US and European markets only selected groceries, specializing in selling Asian vegetables and herbs, sell fresh basella greens (green and purple). In the stores, look for fresh harvest featuring shiny, succulent leaves, and firm stems. The green has no distinctive flavor of its own, however, once cooked, it mixes well with other ingredients in the food, in addition to conferring gel-like consistency to the food.
Avoid sunken, dry, bruised, and discolored leaves.
Basella has a relatively good shelf life. At home, untie the bushel, wrap the leaves in a damp cloth and place in air-tight zip-pouch or plastic bag and store in the refrigerator set at high relative humidity.
Although the greens can be stored in the frige for up to four days, fresh leaves should be eaten at the earliest to get maximum nutrition benefits.
Wash leaves in cold running water to remove any surface grit/sand. Mop dry using paper towel or soft cotton cloth. Trim away tough stems. Chop the leaves and stem for the desired length to add in the recipes.
Here are some serving tips:
The greens are mixed with other popular greens to prepare "saag" in India and Bangladesh (pui shaak), with added lentils or seafood. Its flower and seed heads (pui seeds) are also edible, and being used to prepare recipes with seasonal seafood.
In the southern parts of India, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and Sri Lanka, its leaves and stem are used in numerous variations to prepare curries, stews, soups, etc., and eaten with rice, bread (roti), and noodles.
Like in spinach, basella too contains oxalic acid, a naturally-occurring substance found in some vegetables, which may crystallize as oxalate stones in the urinary tract in some people. Individuals with known oxalate urinary tract stones are advised to avoid eating them. Adequate intake of water is, therefore, encouraged to maintain normal urine output. (Medical disclaimer).
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