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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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basella (or Ceylon spinach, also called vine spinach or Malabar nightshade, Basella rubra) a climbing plant whose succulent red or green leaves are eaten like spinach. Widely cultivated in tropical Asia and China, and now also in Africa and the New World. It is probably a native of India, where the variety previously distinguished as B. alba, with green leaves, is the one most commonly eaten (and is what is usually meant by the name Indian spinach).

The plant, which is prolific, is commonly grown as an annual or biennial. The bright red juice from the fruits is used, especially by the Chinese, for colouring foods such as pastries and agar-agar; and is sold in powdered form for these purposes in various countries including Indonesia. The leaves are mucilaginous, and are often used in Asia as an ingredient for soup, including a Chinese ‘slippery soup’, or as a pot-herb, in stews or with other vegetables. Young leaves may be eaten as salad greens, but are preferred as cooked greens, like spinach; the green form retains its fresh green colour, whereas the red form loses much pigment to the water, and is less attractive. The leaves have a very mild flavour; while the stems, which also become mucilaginous when cooked, tend to be somewhat bitter. In general, basella leaves can be prepared in any of the ways suitable for spinach.