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A Front Garden Jungle of Curious Food Plants

You can always get a good Takeaway in Tooting

Since our Graveney Community Canteen reopened to serve up a takeaway lunch, we’ve seen some new faces at our front door. A number of locals who called on us for support during Lockdown, make their way on foot to see us on a Friday lunchtime and pick up some good grub. We do a mean curry!

We congratulate our visitors on making the effort to walk here, and they in turn, have glowing compliments for our cooks. That really is about as far as our socially distanced interaction will allow at present, but it’s a check-in that means a lot.

Pic 1. Chinese Lanterns from Peggy’s garden

Pic 2. Mutter Paneer, Cumin Rice, Green Bean and Okra Thoran and Chapatti

As I was passing Arthur and Peggy’s house a few weeks ago, I thought I’d just have a quick word with them on the doorstep, to see how they were faring. Peggy was at the door in a flash and keen to show me what she was growing in her lush, green front garden. It was full of vivid orange Chinese lanterns, which looked wonderful and unusual, but there also were some other vigorous-growing mystery plants, that required explanation.

Plant or Seaweed?

I didn’t recognise the Madeira Vine (Anredera cordifolia), growing along the fence, as it bears such a close resemblance to one of the gardeners’ worst enemies: Bindweed. I have to admit that I had my doubts, as Peggy was telling me that you can cook and eat the leaves, like you would spinach or Asian greens. Arthur stood in the doorway and watched, amused - “I’ve eaten it!” he said, as if to reassure me, as Peggy plucked a generous handful for me.

I think it’s the fact that the leaves feel like silicone to the touch – or seaweed! They are succulent and produce a juice when cut, like Okra or Aloe Vera. This is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties and the leaves are said to be good for your digestion.

Two bags of leaves later, and I am none the worse for it! It’s milder than spinach, and it keeps for longer. Our Goan Volunteers told me they knew this plant very well back in southern India, and I’ve since learned that it is widely cultivated and eaten in many countries, including Japan, where it is called Okawakame (Land Seaweed).

Pic 3 & 4. Anredera cordifolia – goes by many names around the globe

Fruit or Fish?

Tumbling over the garden shrubs, was another robust climber with attractive leaves and round, green-skinned fruits. Again, I mistook this for something else and asked Peggy if it was a type of courgette She couldn’t name it for me, but insisted it was very good in a soup! My subsequent Googling confirmed it was Shark Fin Melon, or Fig Leaf Gourd (Cucurbita ficifolia).

Despite its common name, the Shark Fin Melon, the fruit is used as a vegetable. It gets its name because the strands are scraped out and made into a broth resembling the texture of shark fin soup. The plant is widely used both in Asia and in Southern and Central America where it goes under many different names including Chilcayote (Mexico and Central America), Chila (Peru) or Sambo (Ecuador.)

Here’s a very simple recipe (no sharks are harmed in the making of this soup!); there are plenty more online.

Pic 5. Baby Melons growing on the vine in late summer.

Pic 6. Ripe Melons, weighing about 8lb each, harvested by Peggy in October, in time for the traditional Chinese celebrations, which include family members eating dinner together, just like a Thanksgiving dinner, sharing mooncakes, worshiping the moon with gifts, and displaying lanterns.

I've learned a lot about new vegetable tastes and textures this Autumn. If you have something a little bit out of the ordinary and tasty to share here, don’t be shy!

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