The heart-shaped leaves of Basella are a rich source of vitamins and fibre, says Thilaka Baskaran

One of my childhood memories of our kitchen garden is the red-stemmed ‘basale’ creeper on a bamboo trellis, covered with little wine-red coloured berries.

Basella (the genus name) vine was part of every home in south India and the greens were cooked in different dishes.

The plant is native to India and, in the rest of the world, is known as Malabar spinach or red vine spinach, though it does not belong to the spinach family.

There are two common species — the red-stemmed Basella rubra and the green-stemmed Basella alba. In taste, they are indistinguishable.

Basella is a perennial, fast-growing, soft-stemmed vine. The thick, semi-succulent heart-shaped leaves have a mild flavour and mucilaginous texture.

Vigorous vines

The plant can be grown both from seeds and stem cuttings. Sow seeds 1 cm deep in well-prepared soil with rich compost. Support the vines with trellis or fence. It can be left to spread on the ground also. But as a vertical crop, it occupies less space and makes harvesting easier.

This plant will do well in large pots in balconies and can be trained along railings.

If you grow it from a stem cutting, take healthy vines about 30 cm long, remove the lower leaves, dip the wet edges in a rooting mixture and plant them.

Basella grows well in sun or partial shade and tolerates drought and poor soil. But the vines are vigorous in compost enriched soil.

Water stagnation at the base tends to rot the stem. On the other hand, inadequate watering tends to induce premature flowering and seed production.

The vines will be ready for harvest in two months.

Tip pruning the new shoots encourages branching and the pruned leaves can provide the first harvest. As the plants get better established you can harvest the larger leaves.

Multifaceted

Typical of leaf vegetables, Basella is rich in vitamins A, B and C, iron and calcium. It is low in calories and has a fair amount of most minerals. The succulent mucilage is a rich source of soluble fibre.

Ayurveda recommends Baselle in the treatment of several conditions such as anaemia, cough, dysentery and diarrhoea and as a poultice and in the treatment of mouth ulcers in south India.

Fresh young leaves of this highly nutritious plant can be used in salads and older leaves may be cooked with dhal, prawn, meat, chicken and soups. It is cooked with fish in Bengali cuisine, and in stir fries and soups in Chinese or Vietnamese food.

Recipe

Basella raita

1 tbs oil

½ tsp mustard

½ tsp urad dhal

2 dry red chillies

3 cloves of garlic

¼ cup onion, chopped

2 cups of tender basale greens, chopped

½ cup grated coconut and 1 tsp cumin seeds, ground coarsely

1 cup curd

Method

1. Heat oil and add mustard, urad dhal, red chillies, garlic and onion.

2. When onion is translucent, add basale greens and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes.

3. Add salt to taste.

4. Cool and add the ground ingredients, and mix with curd