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Amaranth tastes as good as it looks | James Wong | Life and style


We all have little quirks that drive the people around us crazy. And I think it’s fair to say, if you ask anyone around me, that I have more than most. One of my many “things” is the compulsion to visit a supermarket (or even better, an allotment) whenever I am in a new country. I find the whole experience fascinating. Far more than any museum, tour of monuments or obligatory selfie spot, these teach you about the real day-to-day lives of the people who live there. It might exasperate my friends and family, but I am always picking up ideas to bring home too. So here is my latest find, picked up during a trip to Indonesia…

Driving past paddy fields and coconut palms, one of the other key plants that really stood out to me was one that is far less iconic but equally common: amaranth. Reaching up to 6ft high in big, green clumps, fountains of these leaves grow everywhere. A quick look at any local market will show you why, too – it’s the “Indonesian spinach” that’s on every menu.

To me, as a botanist, this is fascinating, I have seen this South American native in its Andean home, at Caribbean grocers and on the Indian subcontinent, but I didn’t realise it was such a popular edible green this far afield. It seems it has joined the large number of South American plants, from chillies to shark fin melons, that have been popularised across the world by the Europeans, and yet to have never really caught on here in the UK (at least not the first time around).

I really can’t fathom why. As its Indonesian name suggests, amaranth leaves can be used in all the traditional ways that spinach is, but it is far easier to grow. It won’t wilt or go fibrous at the slightest hint of drought, won’t run to seed as soon as the summer gets going, is far less of a target for slugs and has significantly greater yields per plant, too.

The plants comes in a range of beautiful colours, from plain green to deep purples, fiery reds and acid yellows, making them an ornamental addition to the garden as well as your dinner plate. Deriving their hue from the same group of heat-stable pigments that give beetroot and rainbow chard their characteristic colours, they won’t lose their vibrance once cooked – unlike, say, purple French beans or purple sprouting broccoli.

It tends to cost more than spinach in ethnic grocers in the UK, that is if you can even find it for sale. But the plants are easy to grow. Sow seeds direct into well drained soil in a spot with full sun as soon as the last frosts have gone in late spring. They are incredibly quick to germinate. The leaves can be eaten at any stage of growth, from tiny seedlings to towering 6ft giants, you can keep sowing new batches every few weeks right up until July, to give you a succession of young leaves.

If you have windowsill space available, they can be started off early in trays or plugs, ready to be planted out once the threat of frost has lifted to get you even quicker harvests.

As most of the world knows, there really are few leafy greens as beautiful, tasty or easy to grow, and it is high time us Europeans caught on.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek



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