Eating Weeds in the Arab World

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Purslane salad, by Esto.

Portulaca oleracea. The first time I tried it, was, admittedly, in Turkey. It was probably relatively early in the season at Çatalhöyük, when the dig house cooks were only feeding 40-50 people instead of the 100+ ravening hoards. There were tomatoes, cucumber, and a slightly tangy, green succulent seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice. What was it? I had to know. Semizotu.

When I got back to California I tried to figure out what it was exactly–even in the vast foodie farmers markets the vendors had no idea what I was talking about. Semizotu? What? Finally I found it, slightly wilted, high and in the back of the stall, stashed near some dill and parsley. THIS! This is what I was looking for! What, dear vendor, what do you call this? Pig weed.

Wow, okay.

I managed to figure out that it was also called purslane, but still struggled to find any–the farmers generally brought me parsley when I asked for it. But then I started to notice it everywhere. I was like Steve Martin in The Jerk with the new phone books: purslane! It’s in the sidewalks! It is everywhere! It truly was a weed, beneath notice for most people. Sadly I did not go full urban forager–I’d seen a lot of mess on the mean streets (sidewalks) of the East Bay.

Purslane, CC by  Alyss.

Purslane, CC by Alyss.

It’s rare to find purslane at the veg shops in Yorkshire, so I decided to grow my own. I tracked down some seeds last summer and sowed a bed. I felt extremely self-satisfied when little green sprouts started coming up, sure that I would be feasting on a bountiful crop in a few months time. As the purslane got bigger, I noticed that it didn’t look the same as I remembered, more leafy, less stalky. Maybe a different variety? Time passed and I was in denial. It’d taste it–possibly still a bit tangy? No. It was spinach. THE WRONG SEEDS. Absolute charlatan UK seed vendors.

Fast-forward to now, I’m back in the Gulf, where I can still occasionally find purslane. I also find winged beans, long beans, purple cheera, and other vegetables to learn how to cook, so I am completely fulfilled in my non-standard vegetable desires and occupy myself making curries and stir fries to varied results. I have a great cheera recipe.

Anyway, I found purslane at the local food shop in Muscat and decided to make a salad for dinner. Continuing my quest for the name of the global weed, I asked the Omani vegetable-price-marker what purslane was called in Arabic. She was slightly mystified at my question–it was called buckley on the label, but she seemed to want to call it something else. She couldn’t remember.

She grabbed the bunch of purslane out of my hands and went off with it, returning with another woman. Together, they explained that they called it farfina. A lot of laughing and chat about where to find it and how to use it–there’s apparently a great recipe where you chop it up very fine, combine it with dried sardines, pepper, lemon, and then put it on top of rice. It’s on the top of the list for recipes to try in the immediate future. In all the excitement, the purslane got a bit crushed and I had to sort out the wilted leaves later that night.

So, in addition to being extremely high in omega-3, a traditional medicine, and cited by Pliny the Elder as an amulet against all evil, purslane, weed of many names, found all over the world, can also help you make friends.

6 responses to “Eating Weeds in the Arab World

  1. Nice read. Spent my own day today out looking for herb seeds, nbut got nowhere near pars… no, porsla… no… purslane? Whatever. ;-)

  2. Actually, having now translated ‘pig’s weed’, I see it is ‘postelein’ in Dutch– a very common, though slightly old fashioned dinner ingredient in the Netherlands! Seeds are easy to get, such as here: http://www.koopzaden.nl/producten/25/postelein-zaden/gclid/CJzRp5HXy8QCFQIGwwodQF4AnA

  3. Did you ever find a reliable source of seeds? Would love to try growing some.

  4. Maria tells me they grow it, and make salads of it, at Brunswick Garden Centre in York (where she volunteered). She’s not sure if they sell it, but if you ask nicely…There are winter and summer varieties, so perhaps you got the other seed variety.

  5. Duncan–nice one. I got a packet of seeds from another provider so we’ll see what happens!

  6. A delightful tale of eating in another place. I wonder: did you notice the difference in the strength of the spice Cumin? While I was in China for fieldwork (cultural anth ^.^) I noticed that the Cumin was much shorter and fatter than the U.S. variety, and DELIGHTFULLY aromatic and full of flavor. I was never sure if it was the growing conditions of a different variety of the plant…

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