My first exposure to Chenopodium album was when I started my kitchen garden in Bengaluru 10 years ago. I don’t remember if the plants invited themselves and gatecrashed my kitchen garden party or if I sowed the seeds to get a harvest of a variety of leafy greens on a regular basis.
Chenopodium album, or bathua as it is known in Hindi, is a lanky and graceful plant. It has pretty flowers that add height and visual beauty to my kitchen garden, giving close competition to the dramatic red amaranth plants with tasselled flowers. Both these green leafy plants belong to the amaranth family. All Chenopodiums are amaranths, even though not all amaranths are Chenopodiums.
Bathua is self-seeding and grows profusely even in poor-quality soil. I always fall back on these leafy greens when there is nothing else to harvest from the garden.
This is an important winter harvest in north India. The leaves are relished in parathas, raitas and are an important addition to sarson ka saag, where mustard greens are combined with some portions of spinach and bathua.
It’s sometimes known in English as “fat hen”, since the leaves and seeds make a nutritious feed for poultry. In India, the nomenclature of native greens tends to be confusing. A friend insists that bathua is called paruppu keerai (dal greens) in Tamil, while internet tells me that paruppu keerai is purslane. Bathua is chakravarithi keerai, which some websites report as Chakravarthy keerai.
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Bathua has a history of extensive cultivation in Europe, which is how Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus described this species in 1753. It grows wildly in nitrogen-rich soil, covering wastelands easily, and has been seen to grow as far as Antarctica. In India, it is grown on a larger scale in north India. Bathua’s Mexican cousins (Chenopodium nuttalliae) are called huauzontles; these have bigger leaves and seed heads almost as big as mini broccolis. Huauzontle comes from the Nahuatl word nuahutzontli, which comes from the words huantl (amaranth) and tzontli (hair).
Huauzontle is a much loved ingredient in Mexican cuisine. One popular dish is cheese-stuffed huauzontle pancakes topped with a tomato sauce. Another loved dish is huauzontles coated in egg batter and deep-fried with salty Mexican cheese. This is used as a main ingredient as well as a herb to garnish salads. The mature seeds, which are similar to quinoa, are also ground to make tortillas.
All wild greens in Mexico, called quelites (kay-lee-tays), are put to use in a variety of dishes, pretty much like native greens in Indian cuisine. They are commonly used in soups and fritters. In Nahuatl, quelite means “edible herb”. It includes the entire family of greens that grow wild, including weeds such as lambsquarters, purslane, dandelions, chicory, amaranth varieties, watercress and more.
Almost all these leafy greens, including bathua, have a better nutritional profile than spinach. The latter is a more widely preferred green only because it’s easily available and has large leaves.
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While Chenopodim album is looked down upon as a common weed, guess which of its relatives enjoys the ultimate superfood status? It’s quinoa! Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) seeds come from the seed heads of a related species, so there’s no reason not to enjoy the flowers and seed heads of bathua.
Just a note: Bathua leaves are naturally rich in sodium, so use less salt than you would usually in dishes. Some interesting ideas on how to use bathua:
—Combine cooked bathua with ricotta as a filling for ravioli
—Finely chopped, in savoury pancakes topped with grated cheese
—Finely chopped and added to savoury muffins with carrots and cheese
—Grind cooked bathua to a paste and add to dough to make green flatbreads
2 cups bathua leaves
2 green chillies
1 slice ginger
2 cups yogurt
Half tsp salt
2 tsp oil
Half tsp cumin seeds
A pinch of asafoetida
Wash the leaves well two-three times until free of soil. Take enough water in a pan to immerse the bathua leaves. Bring it to a boil. Cook for four-six minutes until the leaves are soft. Pass this through a sieve and press down to remove excess moisture.
Place the cooked leaves in a small mixer jar and grind to a coarse paste along with chillies and ginger. Take yogurt and salt in a bowl and whisk well until smooth and lump-free.
Heat oil in a tempering ladle or small pan. Fry cumin seeds until they sizzle. Add the asafoetida, giving it a quick stir.
Transfer the tempering over the raita. Serve with rice and dal or with parathas.
Bathua Besan Chila
Makes 4-6 chilas
1 cup besan (gram flour)
Quarter tsp baking soda
Half tsp salt
3 tbsp yogurt
1 cup packed bathua leaves
Quarter tsp red chilli powder
Quarter tsp ground turmeric
A pinch of asafoetida
Oil to make the chilas
In a large bowl, combine besan, baking soda and salt with a whisk. Add all the ingredients, except oil, and whisk well. Combine three-fourths of a cup of water to make the batter. Grease a flat pan by rubbing a few drops of oil with a kitchen paper or brush. Pour a ladle of the batter and spread out thinly, adding some oil around the circumference. After 20 seconds or so, flip it over and cook the other side. Fold over and remove to a dish. Repeat the process with the remaining batter. Serve with green chutney.
Note: Add 1 tbsp of flaxseed powder along with 3 tbsp of water to the batter to make it even more nutritious.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is Everyday Superfoods.