Malabar Spinach and Paw Paw Curry

By Published On: 10 Mar '22Last Updated: 14 Apr '24

This Malabar Spinach and Paw Paw Curry is a traditional Mangalorean curry. The sweetness of the paw paw works surprisingly well with this slightly spicy and earthy curry.   

As the rains have continued to come down in buckets for two weeks in a row, so is the desire to have a homemade ‘Malabar Spinach and Paw Paw Curry’. Thanks to my cousin Shamila who is blessed with green thumbs and has an ever growing green patch of Valche Bhajji/Malabar Spinach in her backyard garden. Thank you Shamila, you have really inspired me to cook this very special childhood vegetable curry with your freshly grown ‘valche bhajji’. This home made ‘Valche Bhajji’curry is a blessing to tuck into on a wet drenching day, with some hot steamed rice, fried papads, and a tiny bit of pickle. Oh so so good, and yummiest meal!!!

Thank you dear Shamila for sharing your bounty of ‘Valche Bhajji’ (Malabar Spinach) and ‘Hadli Koley’ (turmeric leaves) with me. Stay tuned for a ‘Haldi Koley’ (turmeric leaves) patholies (flat rice cakes steamed in turmeric leaves with a coconut and jaggery filling) coming to Deliciously Indian soon!!

what is malabar spinach/valche bhajji

Widely used in South-East Asian cooking, ‘Basella Alba‘ is the botanical name for ‘Malabar Spinach’/’Valche bhajji‘. There are two main species of Malabar Spinach – Basella Alba and Basella Rubra (Latin names).

Basella Alba – Very popular in Mangalorean cooking, ‘Basella Alba’ is known as ‘Valche Bhajji’ (image below) in Konkani and the Hindus call it ‘Basale’. ‘Valche’ means ‘vine’ and ‘Bhajji’ means ‘spinach’. It is a quick growing tropical twining vine and can easily grow up to 10 feet in length. The plant has glossy green leaves thicker than spinach leaves, with an almost succulent texture. Unlike the Basella Rubra, the leaves and the stem are completely green. The creeper has white flowers and wine-red colour berries.

Basella Alba’ – with green stems and green leaves

Basella Rubra (aka Ceylon Spinach) – Unlike the ‘Basella Alba,’ this plant has plum-tinted leaves and luxurious wine-red stems. Not so popular in Mangalorean cooking but grows in the same way as the Basella Alba.

‘Basella Rubra’ with plum-tinted leaves and wine-red stems

Although this vegetable is called ‘Malabar spinach’, it is actually unrelated to true spinach (spinacia Oleracea).

When Shamila, my cousin, brought a massive 4kg bag of her very own backyard grown ‘Valche Bhajji’, it brought me back fond childhood memories of my mother growing a valche bhajji creeper on bamboo trellis on the side of our house in Udupi. My mum made several coconut-based curries with this vegetable – with prawns, kube (clams), jackfruit seeds or raw papayas. She would also make a foogath (a dry side dish with coconut, onion and green chilli). These preparations have travelled with me and even after 3 decades, I prepare ‘valche bhajji’ in the same way as my mum, as these are probably the only ways I know to cook this vegetable. I have never learnt any new ways!!

Again, thanks to my dear cousin Shamila who shared her precious home greens with her Aunty! I am touched by her generosity and enthusiasm.

Today I am going to show you how to make a delicious curry with Malabar spinach/valche bhajji pairing it with raw paw paw. The raw paw paw gives a beautiful sweetness to the coconut based curry. Start prepping on the earlier day to save on time by cutting the vegetables all ready to go.

It’s important that the paw paw is mature but not ripe. As a ripe paw paw will get mushy in the curry.

STEP BY STEP INSTRUCTIONS

Have all your ingredients ready to go. The ingredients may look like a whole lot, but be assured each ingredient contributes to the flavour, texture and taste of this unique tropical fruit based curry. In the frame is onion, dried stemless red chillies, dried Kashmiri chillies, shredded coconut, coriander seeds, white poppy seeds, turmeric powder, cumin seeds, cloves, pepper, fennel seeds, mustard seeds and a marble size ball of tamarind.

Have your spinach washed, cut and ready to go. I have used some soft stems as I love the soft stems but you may use only soft stems or both soft and stems with fibre. If the stems have fibre, then these stems must be cooked for 5-7 minutes in 1-2 cups of water before you add the spinach and the paw paw.

Have your paw paw washed, cut into quarters, peeled and cut into bite size chunks.

In a deep heavy based deep saucepan which has a lid, boil spinach and paw paw with the lid closed, in 2 cups (500mL) of water for 10-12 minutes or until the paw paw is cooked but firm. Do not overcook the vegetables. Remove from heat and set aside till we prepare the masala base. Unfortunately, I do not have a photo for this step but you get the idea.

For the masala, heat a heavy based medium size frying pan on low-medium heat and dry roast the two types of chillies for 1 minute or until you see fine tendrils of smoke rising to the surface. Remove on to a bowl.

Add the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, poppy seeds, mustard seeds, cloves, peppercorns and fennel seeds to the pan and dry roast for 1 minute or until slightly fragrant. Do not burn the spices as burnt spices impart a bitter taste to the curry. Pour the spices on to the bowl with chillies. Cool for 5 minutes.

Add oil to the same frying pan and fry the sliced onion on medium heat for 5 minutes or until beginning to change colour. Add the shredded coconut and fry for another 4-5 minutes or until the coconut is golden. You may add the turmeric to the pan or add it to the blender directly. I have added the turmeric directly to the blender. Adding turmeric to the pan and frying with the coconut, gives the curry a beautiful yellow colour. Remove from heat and add to the bowl with roasted spices. Cool for 5 minutes.

Add the cooled spices and the coconut mixture to the blender or a similar appliance. Add the turmeric powder and the reserved tamarind pulp. Blend to a smooth paste with 350mL-400mL water.

Image of the blended masala. I use my ‘Preethi‘ blender which gives good results. If you do not have this blender, use any blender and blend the masala as smooth as you can. Unfortunately, my ‘Preethi’ blender is a bit old and the blades are worn out. New blades will blend the masala into a finer consistency. I am overdue to buy a new blender!! Any suggestions?!!

Remove the ground paste from the blender to a bowl. Wash the blender with 1–1½ cups water and reserve the water.

Place the saucepan with the cooked spinach and paw paw back on medium heat. Add the ground paste and the reserved blender water. Stir well and season to taste with salt. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

For the seasoning:

3 tbsp. oil

1 pinch asafoetida

5 small garlic cloves with skin lightly bruised

1 strand curry leaves

Heat a heavy based small frying pan with oil on low to medium heat

Add asafoetida and sizzle

Add the bruised garlic cloves and brown lightly

Add the curry leaves and move away as they will splutter for a couple of seconds

Cool this seasoning for 2 minutes and add to the curry. Close lid immediately for the flavours to embed into the curry. Rest for 5 minutes. Open lid and stir well to combine

serving suggestions

  • Serve with steamed jasmine rice or boiled rice (mutta rice) with papads and pickle as accompaniments, for a complete Mangalorean vegetarian meal.
  • Serve with steamed rice or boiled rice (mutta rice) and omlette as an accompaniment, for a non-vegetarian meal.
  • Serve with steamed rice and fish rawa fry or fried prawns, as a non-vegetarian option.
  • Serve on top of rice noodles or rice vermicilli.
  • Serve with seeded bread such as ‘Pumpkin Seed’ bread or ‘Burgeon’ bread if you are watching on your carb intake.
  • Serve with chapathi or homestyle parathas for a delicious Indian bread and vegetarian curry combo.
  • Sometimes if I have had a carb heavy day, I also eat it on its own as it is a nutritious meal finishing with a healthy dessert of an apple or some berries.

I hope you enjoy making this curry. This curry is a reminder for myself that I have had a very simple childhood, with a simple upbringing and simple food, most of which was grown in our home garden and cooked lovingly by my mother for her family. Thank you ma for showing me my way around the kitchen and how to cook the food of my homeland, at a tender age! I am truely blessed to have had a mother like you! My family loves the food I cook for them and we remember you each time we cook an authentic Mangalorean meal. I give all credit to you for your persistence in teaching me to cook delicious, authentic and tasty Mangalorean food!!

If you have tried this recipe, I would love to hear your feedback. Please be sure to rate the recipe and/or leave a comment below. If you want to see more recipe inspirations, you can follow me on Instagram @lavina_mendonsa.

Malabar Spinach and Paw Paw Curry

Catherine Lavina Mendonsa
A traditional Mangalorean vegetable curry with a contrast of colour, earthiness and sweetness.  It is made with fresh ingredients such as home-grown Malabar Spinach/Valche Bhajji, matured raw paw paw and served with boiled rice and pickle.  The sweetness of the paw paw works surprisingly well with the slightly spicy and earthy curry.   
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 10 minutes
Course Main Course
Cuisine Indian, Mangalorean
Servings 6 people

Ingredients
  

Ingredients

  • 750 g Valchi Baji/Malabar Spinach
  • 1 raw green mature paw paw 900g cubed

For the Masala

  • 4 dried Kashmiri chillies
  • 3 stemless dried red chillies
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds 2g
  • 2 tbsp. coriander seeds 8g
  • 1 tsp. white poppy seeds 3g
  • ½ tsp. mustard seeds 2g
  • 3 cloves
  • 6 black pepper corns
  • ½ tsp. fennel seeds 2g
  • 2 tbsp. oil
  • 1 medium onion sliced
  • 1 cup shredded coconut 80g
  • ½ tsp. turmeric powder 2g
  • 1 marble size ball of tamarind approx. 10g
  • Salt or vegetable stock powder to taste

For seasoning

  • 3 tbsp. oil
  • 1 pinch asafoetida
  • 5 small garlic cloves bruised with skin
  • 1 strand curry leaves

Instructions
 

  • Clip the leaves of the Malabar spinach and cut the stems into 10cm long pieces (if you are using the stems). If you do not like the stems, then discard the stems and use only the leaves. Wash both the leaves and the stems (if using) well in a large bowl of cold water. You may wash twice if there are any soil deposits. Set aside to drain completely in a colander. Once drained, chop the spinach roughly. You do not need to be precise as the spinach wilts in the curry.
  • Wash the paw paw under running tap water. Wipe well and quarter it. Remove the seeds. Peel skin from each quarter and cut roughly into bite size pieces or cube them.
  • In a deep heavy based saucepan which has a lid, boil the stems (if you are using stems) for 5 minutes with 500mL water on medium heat. If the water is drying out, add ¾ cup water. Add paw paw and spinach and boil for 10-12 minutes or until the paw paw is cooked but firm. If you are not using the stems, then cook only the paw paw and spinach in 500mL water until paw paw is cooked but firm. Do not overcook the vegetables. Remove from heat and set aside till we prepare the masala base.
  • For the masala, heat a medium frying pan on low-medium heat and dry roast the spices for a minute or so, stirring constantly. Starting with both types of chillies, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, poppy seeds, mustard seeds, cloves, pepper corns and fennel seeds. Roast each spice individually and empty each spice into a bowl. Watch each spice closely when you are dry roasting, as each spice takes different time to roast. You know the spices are ready, when the spice leaves a little fragrance, and you see fine tendrils of smoke rising to the surface. Set aside all the roasted spices to cool off for 5 minutes.
  • Add oil to the same frying pan keep the heat on medium. Add the sliced onion and brown for 5 minutes. Add shredded coconut and continue frying for a further 4-5 minutes or until coconut turns golden in colour. Remove from heat and add to the bowl with roasted spices. Cool for 5 minutes.
  • Place the roasted spices and the roasted coconut mixture into a blender or similar appliance along with the tamarind pulp and turmeric powder (see Note 2 below to prep the tamarind). Add 350-400mL water and blend to a smooth paste. As blenders vary, add enough water to your blender so the blades rotate easily, and you obtain a smooth paste. As a guide, my blender requires approximately 400mL water to blend the masala ingredients.
  • Place the saucepan with cooked paw paw and spinach on medium heat. Add the ground masala. Wash the blender with 1-1½ cups water and add to the saucepan. Combine the masala well with the vegetables. Season to taste with salt or vegetable stock powder. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  • For the seasoning, heat oil in a small frying pan or seasoning dish on low heat. Add the bruised garlic cloves and brown them lightly to release their flavour. Add the curry leaves and splutter them. Cool this mixture slightly and add to the curry. Close lid for 5 minutes for the flavours to be absorbed by the curry. Open lid, stir well and combine the seasoning with the curry.
  • Serve hot with steamed rice and papads or any Indian style pickles of your choice. Check serving suggestions above.

Notes

Tip:
  1. With the stems of the Malabar spinach, you may use the tender stems only, if that's what you prefer.  Tender stems are very skinny and located at the tip of the plant, where the leaves are small.  The stems with fibre are wider and located where the broad leaves are.  The broader stems need to be cooked for 5 to 7 minutes before adding them to the curry.  These stems are chewed and the fibre discarded during eating.  
  2. As the tamarind comes in a solid form, soak tamarind in ¼ cup water for 15 minutes while prepping the spices. Squeeze the pulp out and use only the pulp in Step 6. Discard all the fibre and seeds.
  3. Pickles can be bought from your local Indian supermarket.  They sell a variety of mango, lemon and chilli pickles and other pickles.  
Keyword Malabar Spinach, Mangalorean Vegetable Curry, Raw Paw Paw Curry, Spinach, Traditional Mangalorean Vegetable Curry, Vegetable Curry