Indonesia in Focus
Nearly everybody knows Popeye, the sailor famous for his biceps. But, mind you, the guy was never seen inside a gym like today’s machos. A daily diet of spinach famously kept the sailor strong, or so the story goes as gastronome and epicurean el supremo Suryatini N. Ganie writes.
However, quoting an expert on whole foods, spinach belonging to the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae), is no higher in iron than other leafy vegetable, contrary to popular belief that spinach is “the king of vegetables”.
Nevertheless, let’s go local with Popeye and eat a type of spinach called bayam, which has nearly the same appearance and qualities of the imported spinach that now grows abundantly in our tropical climate and has a pleasant taste, when not overcooked.
Speaking about imported spinach, an expert living near Sukabumi says the seeds she uses on her estate were imported from the Netherlands, where it is called spinazie and is eaten raw or cooked by steaming or a variety of other cooking methods.
While the Dutch bayam ancestors have rather large leaves, the leaves of the local bayam are smaller. Actually the spinach originates in South America, but now grows anywhere with a temperate or tropical climate like ours.
Bayam (Amaranthus hybridus L) and the spinach Spinacia oleracea can be obtained year-round here and are sold in supermarkets and traditional markets, and many people even grow it in their gardens.
Various dishes are prepared with the very nutritious vegetable and have many health benefits. Spinach supports the functions of the large intestines, stomach and liver, and it quenches thirst and supports vision.
It is especially useful for easing constipation for the elderly. (The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia, Rebecca Wood).
In 100 g of edible bayam are the vitamins A, B1, C and minerals like iron, calcium and phosphorous.
Though very nutritious, many do not like some bayam dishes because they are considered ordinary, as they are “seen every day”, as a niece of mine once said with displeasure.
Sayur bening, a clear watery soup, while not very impressive is refreshing in hot weather. Then there is sayur bobor, Javanese in origin but well-known throughout the archipelago. And while sharing nearly the same spices as sayur bening, it is more suitable for colder days due to the addition of coconut milk. Eaten with hot steamed rice and crispy fried tempeh, it is not bad at all.
Bayam is also used when preparing traditional salads like pecel and gado-gado.
In Indonesia, bayam grows in two known varieties, the one with small leaves and the other with rather large leaves. There is also a good growing variety with dark red leaves called bayam merah which is believed to be a good vegetable for those with anemia.
Based on a cookbook printed at the beginning of the 20th century, dishes with bayam were much the same as today’s.
There was sayur bobo, sayur bayam jagung (bayam with young corn kernels), and a rather different name for a bayam dish was sayur menir.
Some people say that sayur menir was the preferred sayur of the Dutch because menir (meneer) sounds like meneer (sir, Mr.) in Dutch.
Another explanation of the name was that the Javanese called finely ground raw rice “menir”, which was added to the dish when spicing it with shallots, garlic, trassi, salt and thick coconut milk.
Experimenting with bayam, it turned out that the vegetable could be used for more interesting or even used for more international creations: on toast, mixed with rice and cheese, in lasagna, chicken stuffed with bayam and easy-to-make rollade (Dutch) with red bayam and wortel (carrot).
So how much spinach, or bayam, should one eat every day? Half a cup of spinach may cut the risk of cancer, especially lung cancer, nearly in half.
Suryatini N. Ganie
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