Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Anredera: It's Binahong Time

Binahong, just in case you didn't know, is a South American climber, Anredera cordifolia, usually known in English as the Madeira vine.  In fact, it has been quite a long time since I grew a successful crop of it.  Bad luck, bad weather and bad health in various combinations have all conspired against the binahong harvest over the last few years.


Anredera cordifolia is a member of the Basellaceae, the same family as ulluco and bears a passing resemblance to some of the more viny types of that exasperatingly unproductive Andean tuber. It's even more closely related to Malabar spinach, Basella alba,  which is also known by the Indonesian name binahong. It seems like the two plants have become entwined in popular consciousness and the name is now applied to both species.

Twining and tangling is, in fact, binahong's main claim to fame, or should I say, infamy.  I mentioned previously the invasive potential of the Chinese yam in certain parts of the world.  Anredera cordifolia shares and in fact exceeds the yam's exuberance, spreading in a similar way by means of aerial tubercles; if conditions are right, ulluco's alter ego is exasperatingly overproductive.  The aerial tubers can form massive concretions which swing in the tree branches like wrecking balls - until the bough breaks and the baby falls, shattering and scattering its brittle pieces; these then go on to establish new plants.  In warm climates, it is  a very destructive invader, festooning and killing trees, reducing species diversity and making a thorough nuisance of itself.

And yet and yet... Like most things, Madeira vine isn't wholly bad.  Its leaves are edible raw or cooked, although a little mucilaginous.  It produces large quantities of tubers - at ground level - which are edible when cooked, with a mild taste, unlike the often earthy quality that assails the tastebuds of ulluco eaters. It differs from ulluco in another significant way: tubers seem to form very happily when days are long.  Even in our noticeably cool temperate climate, I have had surprising crops of what look a bit like miniature Jerusalem artichokes - knobbly ones -  all clustered together at the base of the plant.  The tubers share the sticky quality that yams have when they are broken or cut, with long strings of mucus hanging between the pieces.  I've heard of people eating them raw, but I'm not yet ready for the experience.  Baked, they are a lot less slimy and are perfectly acceptable, if unremarkable.

I should also mention that big plants produce creamy white flowers in long racemes, which are actually rather attractive and have a scent. In fact I saw a plant in the scented garden at Trelissick, Cornwall, still  flowering profusely in late November 2011, although, in true Madeira vine style, they were way up beyond the reach of my nose.  Others have described them as "almond-like" or "spicy".

So a hated and feared weed or a useful edible or ornamental plant - take your pick.

Before condemning the plant just yet, it's worth considering its virtues as a medicinal herb, under the guise of its alternative name of binahong: wound healing, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, cardiovascular tonic, liver cleanser, blood pressure regulator, anti bacterial - like the vines themselves, the list goes on and on.  According to this paper it's packed full of saponins, flavonoids, polyphenols and alkaloids - no wonder it's so hard to kill.

I'm more interested to know whether its snotty demanour may have some practical applications in the kitchen. There seems to be precious little information about binahong cookery, although my original source described it as being a legitimate food plant.  Might it be possible, for instance, to use it to bind ingredients together in lieu of wheat gluten? If I can keep my plant alive until next harvest, it should be fun to explore yet another facet of binahong's slippery character.


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