I could hardly believe the green leafy vegetable curry I had for lunch was, in fact, a weed, bought from the local market though.
The taste was closely similar to the commercially grown spinach (palungo), but with an earthy, sharper, piquant savour—and more succulent, hands down. I fell for it.
Yes, it is regarded as a weed, grows wildly (except for a few countries where it is cultivated) virtually all around the world—but curiously eaten, too.
And what’s more, it goes by a slew of names, some utterly ludicrous such as, lamb’s quarters, fat hen, goosefoot, Missouri lambs quarters, Stevens’ lamb’s quarters, late flowering goosefoot, white goosefoot, melde, Antigua hay grass, bacon weed, blueweed, pigweed and more commonly wild spinach.
In Nepal, it is called bethe ko sag and in India bathua saag. The botanic name for this weed is Chenopodium Album, a perennial annual herbaceous plant. The binomial name in Greek interprets as, Cheno (goose) footed, podas (plant). Album stands for the white powdery bloom.
The history of bethe goes as far back as the prehistoric Bronze Age and Iron Age, when hunter-gatherers foraged this green leafy plant in the wild and ate them. Botanists claim that it used to be a food source even in the Chinese civilisation in the circa 5th century AD, but it is generally accepted by all that it was native to Europe and Asia and, over time, got introduced to North America, Africa and Australia. Historians claim that Napoleon Bonaparte relied at times on Chenopodium seed bread for his infantry when food was in short supply.
It proliferates in wheat, potato crops, soybean, home gardens, fallow fields, and being very resilient and needing no tending, grows near all kinds of plantations, orchards, roadsides, ditches, vacant lots, tilled or disturbed soil and sidewalk crevices. If you spend a little time in your garden or the backyard, your observant eye might take in this weed—free for the picking!
In fact, it is commonly considered a pest—an ‘unwanted guest in the gardens’. Thriving in temperate and tropical climate, it is an annual plant that prospers in mid-spring to mid-fall. The wild plant is self-sowing and fends for itself if allowed to set seed (a single plant can bear up to a whopping 100,000 seeds!). Contrary to being a weed, it is cultivated extensively as a food crop in northern part of India and African countries.
“American gardeners have long fought a losing battle against these fast growers, which each produce about 70,000 seeds a year. It grows wild and widely and can be found in lots in Brooklyn and along roads in Los Angeles. Cut it and it comes back, but that is not a bad thing because it is arguably tastier than spinach and packed even more full of vitamins,” write Chris Fischer and Catherine Young in Vineyard Gazette.
Let’s gather some local knowledge about this green leafy bethe sag, called ‘e-koncha’ in Newari, seasonally available in the Kathmandu market. “There are two kinds of bethe, one is the local variety and the other deshi (literally from the Terai),” says 38-year-old Sanu Kanchhi Maharjan from Manamaiju. “Its seedling time almost coincides with the planting of perennial green leafy vegetables like spinach. The harvesting time for the local bethe sag occurs in early spring (April/May) before the wheat crop is harvested or a little late until the seeding time of maize crop (June),” she added.
The local bethe with an erect stem is foraged/harvested young when they grow to a height of 9/10 inches. The local bethe available in Kathmandu are mostly wild and proliferate on their own in the wheat fields and the spring potato crops. Over time with its growing popularity, farmers in small numbers have started growing it like other green vegetables. The deshi variety bears larger leaves and is found in backyards, roadsides, disturbed land and can grow tall to a height of as high as 1.5 meters. Only the leaves are harvested from these shrubs.
Why eat it if it is a weed, invasive and annoying
There is a simple explanation for that—because this invasive wild plant packs a lot of nutrients—in fact, the whole shebang such as, calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, trace minerals and is rich in Vitamin C, riboflavin and beta-carotene.
“…(it) has the nutritional benefits of our dear green leafy food group, such as bioavailable Calcium, Iron, Vitamin C and A, Vitamin K and a little protein in a favourable amino acid balance among many things. It has phytochemicals with both beneficial and inhibitory actions in the body like antioxidants and saponins,” writes naturopath Sarah Mann from Australia.
As this wild plant contains a bunch of nutrients, invariably its intake brings manifold health benefits.
Porous or low bone mass and deterioration of bone tissue is the key symptom of osteoporosis occurring in many post-menopausal women after their fifties increasing risks of fractures and spinal deformity. To keep the estrogen level, or female sex hormones as they are known, in stable order, women are advised to include more green leafy vegetables such as collard greens, broccoli, spinach, lettuce and Brussels sprouts, which are all rich in Vitamin K. Bethe or lamb’s quarters is calcium-rich and contains a substantial amount of Vitamin K to help fight against osteoporosis.
Environmental pollution, long-term intake of vegetables and fruits contaminated with pesticides, foods containing preservatives as well as prolong use of pharmaceutical drugs like paracetamol, acetaminophen, ibuprofen causes toxicity or hepatotoxicity in our bodies, which all cause injury to our liver. Regular intake of bethe sag or lamb’s quarters are said to act as a cleanser for such toxins and protects the liver from being damaged. A regular dietary meal of this green vegetable has proved its efficacy in bringing down the elevated level of liver enzymes preventing grave injury to the liver.
Lowers and stabilises blood sugar level
Diabetes is not curable. But you can stabilise and regulate your blood sugar level to lead a normal functional life. Medical experts believe that the compound called manganese in bethe sag or lamb’s quarters helps control blood sugar level. Good news is that pre-diabetics at risk of progressing to type-2 diabetes can substantially benefit by keeping the blood sugar level stable or lowering it to normal by including this good hypoglycemic agent of a vegetable into their meal plan. The regular intake of this green veggie is said to ‘normalize insulin synthesis and secretion’.
Keeps your heart healthy
Three compounds namely saponins, flavonoids and copper are heart friendly and healthy. They are found in Chenopodium album or bethe sag or lamb’s quarters in a significant amount. A regular intake of this healthy vegetable helps curtail the invasion by the ‘bad guys’ meaning the LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol while welcoming the ‘good guys’, the HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, thus, substantially lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Recent findings claim that the ‘greens’, rich in phytonutrients, fight viruses and bacteria, and block the growth of human breast cancer cells. The green leafy bethe sag, packed with phytonutrients, cuts down the risk of cancer of the lungs, mouth, throat, colon, rectum, breast and oesophagus.
How to eat
The simple the cooking, the better it is—no need to fuss around. Simply cook the bethe sag like spinach (palungo), or for that matter any green leafy vegetable (sag). If you wish to make it a little special, try this celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor’s bathue ki subji recipe (click link).
Measure and moderation should always be practised when a new food item is incorporated in your diet plan. Same goes with bethe sag. Bethe contains oxalic acid or oxalates the same as spinach and other greens, which if ingested in excess can act as a stomach irritant and possibly impede the body’s absorption of calcium. Cooking or blanching eliminates the oxalic acid in this green vegetable.
Pregnant women and infants are not advised to eat this wild vegetable.
Relegated to a ‘pest’ and a ‘nature’s outcaste’, this weedy wonder, as it is, can be a very healthy nutritional diet if you work it into your meal plan—really and truly a wild blessing in disguise.
The information in this article is purely research-based. Some person may be allergic to certain food, so, care must be taken before starting a new food regime by introducing it in moderation. Cross-reference and readers’ discretion is further suggested.