There are lots of random green leafy things for sale in the village market just outside our gates. Sweet potato leaves, squash leaves, bean leaves, cassava leaves, and more. Many things I wouldn’t have thought were edible (and my husband still insists aren’t). For us foreigners they can be intimidating to buy… not only do they look unfamiliar but they’re usually touted under unfamiliar Swahili names: Matembele, Kibwabwa, Sampou, Sombe. But after weeks or months of nothing green at the company store besides cabbage and frozen broccoli, they can start to look pretty interesting.
With Viviane’s help I’ve slowly been identifying most of these local greens and learning how they’re prepared. Most of them she cooks in a similar way: Sauté some tomatoes, onion and garlic, add the greens and some water, let them simmer. Season with ground peanuts and celery seeds. Serve soupy, so you can dip your bucari/fufu in it.
Most of them come out okay. Not exactly award-winning, but not bad either. There’s one, though, that I’ve always liked a lot and is ubiquitous at Congolese parties. It’s called Lenga-Lenga. Viviane told me the greens are called “les amarantes” in French. Amaranth! I found this very exciting as it was a word I recognized, and had subconsciously associated with other words like “edible” and “healthy.” Apparently the flour makes a nice Aztecan hot chocolate drink, and is also a nutritious and gluten-free alternative to regular flour. You can even make gluten-free pasta with it.
Amaranth flour is made from the seeds of the plant, but here they are harvested and sold before flowering. Eating amaranth leaves? I’d never heard of that before. As I started researching them, the first stories I came across were from African refugees living in Australia and Tucson, of all places, about their search for one of their favorite greens from home. And they found it! Amaranth apparently grows all over the place, but nobody except farmers who call it “pigweed” know about it. So the refugees made a deal with the local farmers to pull their weeds and enjoy the harvest. And then they had a huge Lenga-Lenga party.
What a shame to belittle this beautiful green so! Pigweed, it turns out, is quite nutritious and very tasty. Here, I’ll prove it to you. The next time you go to a farmer’s market, or you have some farmer friends, ask if you can take their amaranth aka pigweed off their hands and give this recipe a try. This is an okra-less version of Callaloo, a well-known soup from the Caribbean, and it’s seriously delicious. (Even Seb thinks so. He-who-believes-that onions-fulfill-all-vegetable-requirements and is generally against green stuff. So that’s saying a lot.)
The recipe is from Marcus Samuelsson’s “The Soul of a New Cuisine,” a fantastic book with very accessible recipes from all over the continent as well as the African diaspora. (Except, notably, from Congo. The land of the missing national cuisine.) We have fresh cassava leaves available here, but they require a lot of processing, so the first time I made this with frozen spinach as he recommends. I found the soup quite good, let’s say 4.5 stars out of 5. Then one day in my amaranth research I found that the greens are called “callaloo” in Jamaica. Ding ding! Marcus never mentions them — I suppose because “pigweed” is not exactly accessible at U.S. grocery stores — but when I used them instead of spinach, it kicked this soup up a huge notch. Bam.
Callaloo, adapted from Marcus Samuelsson’s “The Soul of a New Cuisine”
- 2 Tbsp peanut oil
- 1 medium Spanish onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 bird’s-eye chilies, seeds & ribs removed, finely chopped (sub: cayenne or red Thai)
- 1½ tsp ground cumin
- 1½ tsp whole coriander seeds
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1 cup bottled clam juice (or the broth from a can of clams)
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 10-oz packages frozen chopped spinach (or a few large handfuls of amaranth/pigweed leaves!)
- 3 limes, juiced
(A note on preparing the amaranth greens: Ours come on long stems with reddish roots that almost look like radishes. Most of it will be discarded—all you want are the good-looking green or pale leaves and the tenderest of stems. Viviane shreds her leaves finely using a pretty amazing hands-only technique, but that’s because cutting boards and blenders are not standard utensils in Congo kitchens. Me, I throw my leaves in whole and let the blender take care of the rest.)
Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over high heat. When it shimmers, add the onion, garlic & chilies and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add the spices and the liquids and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for 30 minutes.
Add the greens and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes or until cooked through.
Transfer the soup to a blender and puree. Stir in the lime juice, and taste for salt. Serve hot.
Marcus says: “I go to Trinidad often because I love visiting my friend Wendy, but also because I’m fascinated by the food, which comes from so many places around the world. One morning Wendy’s mom cooked brunch for us, serving up delicious Indian, Chinese, Lebanese, and African dishes. But the hands-down highlight of the meal was her callaloo, a bright green garlic-inflected soup that’s the national dish of Trinidad and Tobago and was developed by West African slaves. Wendy’s mom made hers with taro leaves or dasheen (cassava leaves), but spinach makes a good substitute.”
Jen says: Do not skip or substitute the cumin, coriander, or the liquids! They are essential to the flavor of this soup. I’ve made just a few changes from the original recipe (besides the pigweed and stuff in parentheses, the salt is my addition if you’re watching your salt intake). Also note this particular version makes a thin soup, not at all a stew like you might have had before. One bowl makes you think you’re going to go hungry, but somehow the second bowl feels too rich. If you’re into light meals occasionally, as we are, it will serve 2 as long as you have some good fresh bread and/or some hunks of cheese to go with it. Otherwise, this soup is probably best for 4 people as a starter.
An incredible array of cultures around the world use the leaves and stems of the amaranth plant. In Nigeria its name translates as “makes the husband fat” or “we have money left over for fish.” Ha! Help your local farmer weed his fields, eat local, eat well, and save money all at the same time. Bon appétit!
- The story from Tucson: http://www.griffitharchives.org/cooking-lenga-lenga-amaranth-with-marie/
- Cultivation info and nice photos: http://dianabuja.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/amaranth-greens-lenga-lenga-politically-correct-easy-to-grow-and-delicious-recipes-included/
- The Lost Crops of Africa also raves about the nutrition of amaranth greens and its unfair reputation for being a useless weed: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11763&page=37
- Indians, Asians, Africans, basically everybody except us knows the value of this plant. Prepare to be impressed by its list of names and uses: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amaranth
Broccoli soup now has a real competitor!
That’s nice of you to say, Mr. Anti-Green! All right, so you complain a lot, but end up eating whatever I make you anyway… and even like it sometimes 😉
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I grew up eating “pigweed” in early spring when the plants are young & tender; very similar to spinach. I don’t recall the name “amaranth” being associated with “pigweed”. I’ll have to look up the technical name.
How cool! If they were edible, and tasted similar to spinach, they would probably work really well in this soup! Saw your Facebook comment about your leaves not looking the same as mine. I kind of expected that, there are probably many, many varieties of these plants around the world…
It sounds very interesting. I’ll have to look around for some.
I thought of you and your food adventures while writing this! Yes, hope you give it a try…
I wonder if I could substitute lenga lenga withe young nettle. But probably taste is totally different. Great piece, Jen!
Hey sorry for the late reply. I’ve heard of nettle but never tasted it. Let’s try it together when I come to Poland in a few weeks!!