Litte did I expect, when I walked into my neighborhood Vietnamese restaurant for lunch today, that I was about to enjoy yet another edible urban plant experience. It all happened because I happened to sit down text to this large, flourishing houseplant, whose shiny, black, beetle-like fruits soon caught my eye.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
When the owner came over to take my order, I asked her about the plant and whether the seeds were edible. No, they weren’t, but did I want to try some soup made with the leaves? Of course I did!
The next thing I knew, the cook had appeared with a large pair of scissors and was harvesting leaves before my very eyes. It was somewhat odd, like picking a fish or a crab from a tank at a seafood restaurant, knowing you are sending it to its death, but of course less traumatic, seeing that the plant was left mostly intact and was indeed so robust that you could hardly tell afterwards that any leaves had been removed. I often eat from my herb plants at home, but doing so at a restaurant was a new experience for me.
A few minutes later, a small bowl of fragrant chicken broth appeared, filled with tender strips of green that tasted quite like spinach, only juicier and fresher.
Only after I finished my lunch did I find out exactly what kind of plant I had eaten. The owner called it Mồng tơi, or Vietnamese spinach, and agreed that I could collect some seeds next week, when the fruits are completely ripe, to grow at home. In turn, I agreed not to reveal on my blog exactly where her amazing plant and restaurant are, because houseplant soup is not available to the general public! The plant is not big enough to feed the hungry hordes.
Back at home, I found the plant on Wikipedia. Turns out that it has myriad names in English: “Malabar-, Malabar climbing-, Ceylon-, Indian-, East-Indian-, Surinam-, Chinese-, Vietnamese- or buffalo spinach,” and is not botanically related to spinach at all, only used similarly in the kitchen. The heart-shaped leaves can be purchase in many Asian supermarkets.
Yet another experience of the small joys in life brought by (gently) snacking on our green neighbors.
1 large handful Malabar spinach or other edible houseplant foliage
2 cups chicken broth
Salt, pepper, and ginger juice to season
Slivered scallions and chilies for garnish
Bring broth to a boil. Meanwhile, wash and thinly slice spinach. Add to soup and simmer briefly. While doing so, taste for seasonings and add salt, pepper and ginger juice to taste. Pour into bowls and top with scallions and chilies.