Sunday, March 15, 2009

Purslane, the delicious weed

I've been threatening to write about purslane for a while, now.

I saw big, healthy bunches of it being weeded out of the Abalimi Bezekhaya plots (above) on the Cape Flats in Cape Town, when we visited, and tossed aside, while other 'real' vegetables were destined for CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes packed by the Harvest of Hope, an Abalimi affiliate started in 2008.

I thought that the purslane could be put to more profitable use. It has always been considered veldkos (field food) in South Africa, and a member of the morog family (loosely defined as edible leafy greens growing wild - often used to supplement nutrition-poor diets in rural areas and sometimes stigmatized by urbanites, as a result).

The first recipe below is C. Louis Leipoldt's (1880-1947), known to most Afrikaans South Africans as a poet, but who also a doctor, journalist, novelist, botanist, and probably gay at a time when the word meant happy. The second two are from Charmaine Solomon's 1998 Encyclopedia of Asian Food. The final two are mine, though hardly original.

In Leipoldt's Cape Cookery (included in the 2003 collection Leipoldt's Food and Wine) he writes:

"Purslane (porseleinblaar) that grows profusely in every Cape garden in late winter and spring was, in the old days, and should be today, a favourite vegetable. Its little succulent leaves were gathered, washed and braised with ginger powder, mace, pepper and salt in fat; a tiny spicule of garlic was added, a wineglassful of wine was stirred in, and the result was an amazingly delicate, luscious and sapid puree, that was served with rice and potatoes."

Charmaine Solomon writes of purslane's medicinal uses: "In Indonesia purslane was traditionally prescribed for cardiac weakness. The latest research in Western medicine reveals that it is one of the few vegetable sources of omega-3 [fatty acids]...which have an anti-inflammatory effect. It has a high iron and Vitamin C content, hence its use in the prevention and treatment of scurvy."

In fact it has exceptionally high levels of omega-3. The highest yet recorded in a plant.

"The succulent stems and small fleshy leaves with a slightly mucilagenous quality are eaten raw, served with a dip of fish sauce."

That sounds rather good, if you like fish sauce. I do. I would add to the little dipping bowl a big squeeze of lime or lemon juice, a teaspoon-plus of sugar and half a chopped chile. Wash purslane thoroughly and chop into small dippable lengths, stem and all. Dip, eat. Sticky rice on the side for a more substantial dish and you have a very good meal.

Stir fried Purslane, Chinese Style:

Serves 4

1 or 2 bunches purslane
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

Wash purslane, shake dry and trim off the roots and tough lower ends of the stems. Cut into bite-sized pieces. Heat oil and fry garlic on low heat until fragrant. Toss in the purslane and stir fry for 1 minute, add soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, and mix quickly.

Spicy Purslane, Sri Lankan Style:

Serves 4 as an accompaniment to rice.

1 bunch purslane
1 small leek 
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
2 teaspoons pounded Maldive fish [Um... Anchovies? Shrimp paste? Or fish sauce]
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
4 tablespoons water
squeeze lime juice

[Clean purslane as above] Wash leek thoroughly, slice finely. Heat oil and gently fry the leek and garlic, stirring from time to time, until soft and fragrant. Cut purslane into short lengths and stir fry for a minute. Add the Maldive fish [or substitute], salt and chilli powder, fry a few seconds longer and add water. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Sprinkle lime juice over, mix, taste and adjust seasoning.

And so back to South Africa.

Hilda Gerber (her book, above) writes:

"The word bredie, according to Lichtenstein, is derived from the Malagese. In the Madagascar tongue, bredie signifies spinach. At present given by the whole colony to a sort of vegetable dish, which like cabbage, spinach, or sorrel is cut into pieces and dressed with cayenne pepper."

How could Malagese have arrived in South Africa? Slaves.

Somehow, in South Africa, bredies evolved into slow-cooked stews of lamb, onions, and cut up seasonal vegetables. She mentions that the old people she interviewed (in the late 1940's) remembered their mothers making porselein-bredie, but that no one made it anymore, or knew how.

So, try this:

Porselein Bredie

Serves Four

2 Tbsps vegetable oil
2 large onions, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic crushed and sliced
1 large bunch purslane, well washed, cut into 1 inch lengths (discard tough stems)
2 lbs of lamb (chops, ribs or cut up leg or shank)
1 lemon's juice or 1/4 cup tamarind juice
2 hot red chiles, sliced
3 medium potatoes, cut up
Chicken stock, white wine, or water, about 2 cups
salt, pepper

You need a saucepan or pot with a lid. In a medium-high heat sweat the onions in 1 Tbsp oil until slightly coloured, about 10 minutes (cover with a lid to extract their moisture a little faster). Add garlic and cook another minute. Remove onions and garlic from the pan. Add the 2nd Tbsp of oil. Brown the lamb in batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan and cause the lamb to go pale and sweaty. Squeeze over the lemon juice and stir up the brown bits stuck to the pan. Return the rest of the lamb and the onions to the pan and add the purslane and chiles. Add enough liquid to just cover the meat. Cook with the lid ajar at a gentle simmer for about 2.5 hours - add the potatoes after 1.5 hours - until the meat is falling apart. Taste after an hour and add salt and pepper. Check liquid levels periodically. You should be left with a very flavourful 1/4 inch the bottom of the pan.

Serve in bowls with a spoon for juice-dipping, or with rice.

And finally (are you still there?):

Potatoes with Purslane:

To piping hot, boiled baby potatoes, in their pot, add the leaves of a bunch of scrupulously clean purslane. Just the leaves. Toss with 2 tablespoons of very good EV olive oil; salt and pepper generously and squeeze a little lemon over. That's it.

The End.

* Update: Rob Small, director and founder of Abalimi, wrote to let me know that purslane is now a regular feature in the CSA boxes. It is accompanied by an insert I wrote explaining how it can be eaten and prepared. I'm curious to know how many subscribers actually do eat it.


  1. I'm still there, and now I'm hungry...

  2. Skattie! wonderful.... especially love the Cape Malay flavors... are you listening for signs of Spring over the thunderous crash of the economy?? I am now proud Oumie of dogtertjie number 2 but have been enjoying your adventures in the bush... V's Leopard pix magnificent..

  3. Still here too. Purslane looks familiar. Would I have seen it or a look alike in BK?

    I may be delusional but it reminds me lots of this small succulent that grows as a weed (ahem, volunteer) in my backyard.

  4. shame, man!

    Judi - sound really happy, that's great.

    Amarilla - oh yes! I've seen it at the farmers' markets here, and it really does grow like a weed. It is Portulaca. Often very flat along the ground (hence sandy), but another kind is a little more upright.

  5. Hen said
    Lyn and I have come back from Abalimi this morning, loaded with bags of purslane - having taught the ladies there something. Lyn is going to make a purslane risotto for supper and I might make the bredie - must get lamb

  6. HEN!!!

    Yaaaaaaaaaaaaay! Are you going to make bredie or Bevan's thing? Risotto sounds good.


  7. 6am here and about to get breakfast...I miss the purslane that "volunteered" all over my former rambling country garden. I never cooked it, just added it to salad.
    And, recently, a friend gave me a smallish pot of basa, Ceylon spinach, which is somewhat similar.
    Breakfast now seems rather boring!

  8. This is such a great post! The Shakers in Upstate New York liked purslane a lot too. I can't remember how they prepared it, but I do remember several recipes in one of my cookbooks. I'll have to look it up over the weekend and get back to you.

  9. Not sure I'd want purslane for breakfast...:-)

    Ann - Shaker recipe: intriguing. Pass on if you can.

  10. I made cold salads with it this past summer, for the first time. Delicious!

    Zatar (from Istanbul)
    Olive oil (from Crete)
    chopped skinned and seeded tomatoes
    chopped cucumber
    finely shaved red onion

    Thanks for posting! More please!

    :) Pritha

  11. Oddly enough, my biggest finding of purslane was running down the driveway of my CSA pick-up site. Yummy! Have to do more foraging this year. I had forgotten how lemony it tastes.


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