Basale soppu goes by many names. It’s often called Mangalore spinach or vine spinach or, in the US, on the rare occasion when you can find it in non-Indian stores, it’s generally sold as Malabar spinach, after the stretch of coast on the West side of India that includes Kerala. In India, though, its names are even more numerous and diverse: in Gujarati it’s called poi ni bhaji, in Telugu it’s known as bacchali, and in Konkani it’s called vauchi bhaji.
Whatever you call it, though, the greens have a distinctive taste and texture, and elicit either wild fandom or loathing. The Latin name, curiously enough, mirrors the Kannada name quite closely: Basella alba (a green-stemmed variety) and Basella rubra (red-stemmed) are the two sorts of this green that you’re likely to find if you go looking for it.
The plants love heat and humidity, and flourish in the humid low-lying coastal areas of southwestern India. But there’s no reason why they couldn’t do well in the Northeast for at least part of the year. They grow rampant in kitchen gardens throughout the south of India, and because they love to climb once the summer heat kicks in, it’s not uncommon to see them twisting around stakes in the ground and drawn out between a post and a nearby coconut tree.
Although the plant is unrelated to “true” spinach, the taste of cooked basale soppu isn’t entirely un-Spinach-like. Its main distinctive feature, though, is the mucilaginous sap that it exudes when chopped or cooked. Though some people find the texture of the finished greens hard to take, I think it’s mostly a question of developing a taste for it: as it is, I find the thickening quality of the greens a handy way to give your soups and stews a little body without cooking them down too much. Also, though this rejoinder has been employed to little effect by mothers and Popeye throughout the ages,I feel compelled to add that basale soppu, like spinach, is good for you! It’s packed full of vitamins A and C and rich in Calcium and Iron.
Love it or hate it, basale soppu, which can be cooked simply, stir-fried with a little ginger, garlic and some oil, or folded into traditional Kannadiga saarus or curries, is an adaptable, fascinating part of the Indian kitchen and if you ever see it at a store, do pick some up and try it!