Any variety of amaranth is incredibly easy to grow, says Thilaka Baskaran

Walking with friends around a river bend in the Italian countryside, I found a patch of a familiar plant growing wild. I recognised it as amaranth. When I told my friends that we cook it in India, they wouldn’t believe me as the plant is considered a weed there. I picked some and made an amaranth-dal soup to make my point. It was a hit. To them, I soon became ‘the lady who makes soup out of weeds’.

Having originated in the Americas, amaranth is one of the oldest food crops there, with archaeological evidence of it dating back to 6700 B.C. The seed was a staple for the Incas and the Mayans.

Easy to digest, high in protein and gluten free, it is grown in many countries in the Americas as a grain substitute and used in porridge and baked products, or just roasted and eaten. The genus Amaranthus consists of nearly 60 species, some cultivated for grain, some as leafy vegetables and others as ornamental plants. The Indian vegetable market has at least three or four greens from the Amaranthus family.

The flowers are huge tassels or tiny globes containing hundreds of tiny seeds. Any variety of Amaranth is incredibly easy to grow, particularly in well-drained soil.

Rake the ground; mix in some compost and even it out. Amaranth seeds are small and so it is better to mix them with some sand or sawdust before you sow them so that they are scattered evenly. Cover them lightly with soil or cocopeat and keep the bed moist.

Amaranth can be grown in full sun or partly shaded areas. Grow small patches in succession so that you can have some tender greens the whole year through. It tolerates some drought, but the most tender greens come from well-watered plants.

The plants will be ready for harvesting in about 30 days. They may be pulled out or cut off above the first or second set of leaves.

They put out side shoots and when these are about 15 cm, they can be harvested again.

Do add some nitrogen-rich fertilizer or compost after every harvest. Frequent harvesting delays the onset of flowering and prolongs the harvesting period.

Amaranthus is largely free of pests, though grasshoppers and caterpillars occasionally appear.

Leave one or two plants that show good growth to flower and set seeds. Cover the seed head with a plastic bag to collect the seeds.

Rich in nutrition

The leaves are nutritionally superior to many other leafy vegetables, rich in carotene, vitamin C, iron, calcium and trace elements.

Here is the recipe I cooked for my friends:

Amaranth dal soup

Ingredients:

1/2 cup masoor dal

3 cups amaranth leaves, chopped

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1/8 tsp chilli powder

1/2 tsp cumin powder

1/2 cup chopped onions

6 flakes garlic

2 cups chopped tomato

2-3 cups water

Salt, to taste

Method: Cook all the ingredients together, partially covered. Blend and sieve. To this cooked mixture, add 2 tsp coconut milk powder and 2 tsp of butter. Mix well. Check for salt and consistency. Sprinkle some chopped coriander before serving.

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