Friday, January 21, 2011

Eating amaranth


Wild greens have been cooked by people for as long as they have been hungry.

We pulled this pigweed (umtyutyu in Xhosa, probably Amaranthus retroflexus in Latin, and in South Africa pigweed is purslane, but I'm not talking about purslane!) a few days ago from the sandy soil of a garden in Khayelitsha and another in Nyanga. It sprawls on the soil, its seed heads crowning the rosettes of leaves.

Selina explained to a gardener at the Nyanga Garden Centre that we eat these greens and enjoy them. The gardener's response was politely derisive. Now that vegetable gardens have arrived and micro farming has begun on a small scale in these townships, the weeds that for decades fed people who were forced to gather wild greens in order to stave off real hunger and deprivation, are scorned by urban gardeners: If we have green peppers and tomatoes and carrots, why do we need this food that we ate when we had nothing? Rural women new to the city still come and gather the weeds for the pot in these gardens, and are welcomed for the free labour they provide, but their eating habits are dismissed as backward.

Rich farmers eradicate the weed on an industrial scale. Small farmers pull it out.

It is significantly more nutritious than spinach and tastes better, too, to my palate. The Old People knew this. We have forgotten.

Some of the well heeled and supposedly well educated CSA members who receive boxes of vegetables every week from The Harvest of Hope, share this withering opinion, rejecting the occasional bunches of nettles and not loving my evangelically promoted purslane carefully tucked in with the other fresh produce for R95 (approx. $13.86) per box. They have not yet been confronted with a posy of pigweed. Evil grin.

I can't help becoming exasperated. I live in that little bubble of blogging and consuming and growing that lauds Local and recognizes edible weeds and wild plants for what they are - interesting and delicious vegetables in their own right. So to come down to earth, where only bona fide 'produce' rules (SOMEONE had to bite into the first tomato, for goodness' sake!), to realize that the world of local food magazines and roof farm blogging is not the real world at all,  is something of a culture shock. It is hard to believe that someone capable of buying and reading a glossy magazine or subscribing to an excellent CSA is not capable of sauteeing some nice, iron-rich pigweed for their bruschetta or tossing some outrageously healthy purslane (Omega 3! Vitamin C!) into their green salad. Nor capable of the most superficial research, a mouse-click away.

Sigh. Spread the word. Why should these subsistence farmers throw away this healthy, valuable green stuff, when it could be turned not only into health but into profit? The best chefs in Manhattan are loading UP on wild greens. And the suburbs and the small and large farms are saying, No thanks, it's a weed, you can't fool us.

 Gathering pigweed to eat from a garden in Khayelitsha

Regardless. As we speak, a succulent stew of pigweed and chicken and yogurt is bubbling on the stove (I imagine it to be slightly east-of-the-Adriatic in flavour, the kind of recipe Paula Wolfert might have teased from a mountain woman). A bredie is a slow-cooked South African stew, and is usually made with lamb and one particular seasonal vegetable; milk products would not feature. Still, there is a seasonal vegetable - the leafy amaranth, supported by sweet leeks, and it took its time cooking. So I'm calling it a bredie. The result is creamy, tangy, silky.

The recipe is next door at 66 Square Feet (the Food).

If you live in Cape Town and want to eat well, want to know what you are eating,  and through doing so want to support a peerless cause that teaches people to grow food for themselves and sell it, too, consider subscribing to The Harvest of Hope's weekly CSA box. The 'real' vegetables, leaves and herbs are local and are grown using organic methods. They are grown by farmers who cultivate their own home crops on the same land, and who are under contract to Harvest of Hope to supply a given quantity of crops throughout the year.

And if you are lucky, you might find a bunch of weeds in there, too. If you are wise, you will welcome them.

A weed is in the eye of the beholder. And the more you know, the more you eat.
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