Known alternatively as Ceylon spinach or Malabar spinach in English, or kubay, grana, ilaibakir, dundula and libato in some Philippine dialects. Scientific name: Basella alba.
Though commonly regarded to and treated as a type of spinach, alugbati is technically a climbing vine among a family of flowering plants. According to a Philippine Department of Agriculture resource on indigenous Philippine vegetables, alugbati is “a succulent, branched, smooth, twining, herbaceous vine, reaching a length of several meters. Its stems are green or purplish. The leaves are somewhat fleshy, ovate or heart-shaped, 5-12 cm in length, stalked, tapering to a pointed tip and heart shape at the base. Its flowers are pink and about 4 mm long. The fruit is fleshy, stalkless, ovoid or nearly spherical, 5-6 mm in length and purple when mature.”
As with common greens, alugbati is composed mostly of water, with traces of protein, carbohydrates, and fibre. According to a short feature on ‘super foods’ in the Philippine landscape, “a cup of alugbati contains your recommended daily intake of vitamin A and is a great source of calcium, potassium, and folic acid.” Per hundred grams, it continues, alugbati contains enough vitamin C to meet recommended daily intake, along with high levels of B-complex vitamins and iron.
Alugbati is often grown as a backyard vegetable, though its propagation as a profitable farm crop is actively supported by local and national government and organic farming collectives such as the Federation of Free Farmers.
Cooking with alugbati
According to the Department of Trade and Industry produced pamphlet above on alugbati production, this fast-growing vegetable has “a pleasant, mild spinach flavour that some may find earthy. It is slimy when overcooked, which makes it an excellent thickening agent in soups and stews.” The purplish dye pressed from alugbati’s ripe fruit is also used as a natural food colour.
Alugbati leaves and young shoots feature prominently in a Visayan dish called utan, a hearty vegetable soup often prepared with summer squashes, okra, sitaw (yard-long beans), eggplants and shrimp (or fish or meat).
Another common Visayan preparation for alugbati, as recounted here by an old lady in a Cavite market, is alugbati in ginataang munggo (mung beans stewed in coconut milk).
Faith Durand from The Kitchn calls Malabar spinach “the real stars of summer salads and sautés.” Great addition to a backyard patch of salad greens!
Back to the Philippines, where food writer Gerry San Miguel pays a visit to Taal Vista Hotel’s Taza Fresh Table, a restaurant proud to “source local, cook global.” Exciting stuff, by the looks of his review! Here, the Alugbati Salad has “local vine spinach with wild arugula, jicama, red onion, cherry tomatoes, and Naga pili nuts draped with a flavorful Salted Egg-Citrus Vinaigrette,” making it “one must-try salad dish.”
For those inclined, a paper from the De La Salle University Research Congress on flour milled from freeze-dried alugbati leaves, highlighting the flour’s “high hydration, fat absorption and emulsifying capacities.” In particular, this section on alugbati flour as a gelling agent caught my attention: “Gelation capacity refers to the ability of a food to form heat-induced gels and give texture that is determined by its molecular structure, interactions with other components and other conditions,” resulting in the flour forming a gel at much lower concentrations than wheat flour – improving moistness, texture, thickness and mouthfeel of foods such as soup, custard, sauces, yogurt, ice cream and puddings.