Dora Hinds grew up as a city girl in her native Guyana, but that didn’t stop her from creating her own agricultural oasis when she moved to the Nehemiah houses in East New York, Brooklyn, several years ago. Her new home came with a large, sunny backyard, and Hinds quickly got to planting.
“I said, ‘well, God didn’t give me this backyard just to grow...a lawn,’” said Hinds, who eventually decided grass was more trouble than it was worth. “I said, ‘no, I’m not able [mow the lawn], I’m going to grow something that I can use.’” Because of that decision, she now has Malabar spinach thriving right by her back steps.
Malabar spinach is a tropical plant that thrives in hot, humid climates. She grew up eating the leafy green in Guyana, where it’s also known as “thick-leaf callaloo.” These days, Hinds brings any surplus harvest to East New York Farms, where she’s been a longtime member.
“Whatever I grow in my backyard I share with my neighbors, my friends at the church and if there’s an excess I take it to what we call the ‘share table’ in the farm itself,” Hinds said.
David Vigil, East New York Farms manager, grows Malabar spinach at the farm, too. He says it’s a favorite with the neighborhood’s Caribbean residents. “We grow produce from all over the Caribbean and all over the world according to what our customers are looking for,” he said, adding that Malabar spinach and other vegetables have been grown for decades in the neighborhood.
East New York Farms was started in 1998 as a way to bring fresh produce to the area and to serve as a community gathering space. Vigil said the weekly markets highlight some of the wide range of produce being grown in the neighborhood. “At different times of the year, we’ll see grapes, figs, beautiful pumpkins, malabar spinach, different kinds of peppers, eggplants, tomatoes,” he explained.
(Photo, from left: David Vigil, Amy Eddings, Dora Hinds/Joy Y. Wang)
Malabar spinach has the advantage of being both easy to grow and heat-resistant. When many leafy greens like spinach begin to bolt during the heat of summer, the tropical plant continues to thrive. It tastes much like thicker version of spinach, though it's not related to the plant. “We usually start it from seed in our greenhouse around late May and then plant it out into the garden sometime in June,” Vigil said. “And then we can be harvesting off those same plants up ‘til now, into October, and sometimes into November if the weather cooperates."
A trellis can help the plant grow because it likes to climb, but at East New York Farms the plants never quite get big enough to need the support — Vigil just snips off entire vines to sell at the market.
The plant itself can also be easily shared. Vigil said that many people give clippings to neighbors. The stems can just be placed in a glass of water and transplanted once roots develop.
(Photo: Malabar spinach cuttings from East New York Farms/Joy Y. Wang)
From that point, it can continue to produce a bounty for fresh, tasty green leaves. “We either steam it and eat it as a side dish, or we use it [in] a stew,” Hinds said, “but you have to be careful [of] how you’re using it in the stew.” That’s because Malabar spinach has mucilaginous properties. She said only add the leaves and tender shoots in shortly before the dish is done cooking. Hinds also advised not covering the dish, since Malabar spinach will release water during the cooking process.
If you come across some, try a recipe for Malabar Spinach Dal (Bachali Kura Pappu), Spinach Salad with Bacon and Roasted Mushrooms, or Tomato-Malabar Spinach Quiche. Let us know how it turns out!