One of the greatest things about living in Kenya is vegetables are a dime a dozen. What better life choice can you make than eating food that not only gives you sustenance that your body needs, but also heals and repairs your immune system? So, before your next grocery shopping trip, why not read on for reasons why you should (quite literally) ‘turn over a new leaf’?
These nutritious vegetables are actually hiding within our gardens under the troublesome name of weeds. The role of these ‘leafy gems’ in maintaining household nutrition is greatly understated. Grouped together they are a major source of vitamin A and C as well as calcium and iron.
Horticultural journals cite that fresh leaves of vegetables such as amaranths or cowpea contain more than 100 per cent of the recommended daily allowances for vitamins and minerals. They also contain 40 per cent of the amount of proteins that children need. A valuable addition to the diets of nutritionally vulnerable people like patients with HIV or those who are affected by AIDS. Pregnant mothers too need more nutritional content in their food, as do nursing women, young children and the elderly.
1. Spider Plant
Swahili : Mgagani
Other names for this bitter leaf include ‘cat’s whispers’, spider flower as well as managu. Traditionally, this delicacy is served boiled as a side dish.
To offset the bitterness, the spider plant is usually cooked in milk for days. The longer it is soaked and boiled in milk, the less bitter it becomes.
An alternative to milk is pounded groundnut sauce. It can be cooked together with other veggies such as cowpea leaves or amaranth. It is great for vegetarians because it is a rich source of protein. The levels of magnesium and calcium, have been found to be higher that those in spinach and swiss chard.
Most communities serve boiled spider plant ‘managu’ to mothers before and after the birth of a child, or in any situation where there has been loss of blood.
Also used as an anti-rheumatic, counter-irritant traditional medicine. The leaves are crushed and mixed in a drink for curing diseases such as scurvy. The high vitamin content makes it good for the eyes and the level of protein favours high energy supply.
2. Cowpea leaves
Also called the Kenyan black-eyed peas. Mainly grown for its strikingly long pods, similar to that of the green bean. It is a multi-purpose plant because it is used for its beans, flowers and leaves.
The pods it produces can be eaten raw as well as cooked (at their finest when still young plants). In West Africa, they are often stir friend with potatoes and shrimp. A popular healthy option is chopping them up into very small pieces and tossing and frying them in a omellette.
Cowpeas are a great source of protein, vitamin A, iron, phosphorous and are packed with valuable nutritional content. Correctly heated, they are a useful ingredient in baby foods since they are so widely available.
In my community, the plant is used to stimulate breast milk production. The leaves can be dried and used as a meat substitute.
Medicinal uses include: drying and grinding the seeds then mixing them up with soil or oil for use in treating boils. Crushed paste of the cowpea plant mixed with any ointment can be applied superficially to treat chicken pox.
3. Slender Leaf
Slightly bitter when cooked as a vegetable some communities mix it with cowpea to increase the protein content. Seasoned consumers enjoy its bitterness, while the younger generation prefers its milder cousin which has a less bitter effect.
It can be used as a herb in soups and stews. The young leaves and shoots contribute almost 100 per cent of your daily vitamin A and C, plus iron and calcium.
Medicinal uses include: relieving stomach related ailments, inflammation and even malaria. It has also been known to treat sore throats and oral thrush.
4. Vegetable Amaranths
Also known as Terere. Amaranth is a wondrous collection of herbs with foliage ranging from purple, green and red to gold.
It is a grain that contains absolutely no gluten so anyone who has allergy to wheat can eat it freely. It is an excellent source of protein and provides a good source of dietary fibre.
Amaranth is also packed with minerals including iron, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus, and compared to other leafy vegetables it has the highest content of micronutrients.
Vegetable amaranths are recommended for young children, breastfeeding mothers, anyone with anaemia, fevers or kidney complaints. The leaves are used to treat inflammation and boils and are even used in some parts of Africa as a medicine for lung disorders.
The vitamin A and C in them enhances eyesight in a similar way as oats. Amaranth seed oil is also beneficial for people with hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
In the far east, amaranths are used to cure infections, rashes and migraines.
5. Pumpkin Leaves
The leaves are low in sodium and even lower in cholesterol.
They are a great source of niacin. Also provide a welcome source of dietary fibre.
Pumpkin leaves are actually known to improve the appetite of patients who are recovering from illness.