In case you’re wondering, these are amaranth leaves. They’re cultivated from a bushy, wild-looking super plant that grows grains, flowers and leafy greens. Until a couple of weekends ago, this would’ve looked like nothing more than a tousled mess of purple and green to me. But then I met a man by the name of Van De, who, amongst other things, taught me a thing or two about amaranth.
I’d like you to meet him.
Mr. Van De operates a small kiosk – two flip-out tables worth – at the Atwater food market. For the record, I’ll be quick to say that Atwater is not my go-to hunting ground for local foodstuffs. Demographic shifts have caused its products to become more expensive, fancier, chi chi. You can buy overpriced chutneys from England or artisanal squid-ink noodles from Sardinia or pineapples shipped all the way from Costa Rica. But I’d much rather have rows of produce, piled high in front of ruddy vendors with dirt under their fingernails hawking their wares. I gravitate to markets that are raucous and a little rough around the edges, where you can hear belly-laughs and vendors yelling and old ladies bargaining; a place where people of different colours, sizes and tax brackets mingle in the same space. Ultimately, I’m there for the show as much as I’m there for the food.
But most of all, I like markets where I can have a chat with the producers – the ones who’ve had their hands in the muck, so to speak. It might sound clichéed, but in my romantic ideals of what a good food market should be, its shining star is the producer who knows their product inside and out and is eager to cut you off a slice.
And this brings us back to Mr.Van De, because he is that kind of producer. It’s what makes him the MVP of Produce at the Atwater market.
A few Sundays ago, I had to pick up bread for a family get-together. The Atwater market was closest, so I ended up there. While I carefully dodged the droves of manicured ladies, I came across Van De’s little kiosk – his tables were laid out in front of a beat-up van with its doors flung open, exposing large vats of leafy produce. He’s literally selling stuff out of the back of his truck. Who IS this guy? I’d never seen him before, but I liked him already.
It turns out that Van De specialises in Asian vegetables and sprouts, which he grows, without the use of pesticides, just 25 km outside the city. Stacks of bitter melon, pennywort, amaranth leaves, Vietnamese celery and watercress are laid out beside eachother in self-serve bins. It was like being at a candy store for grown-ups. When he saw me eyeing some bright green sprouts, he picked some out of the bin for me to try. Tenez, madame, essayez. Intensely bitter, but also nicely acidic and grassy, I later found out that out that they were rau đắng, an herb that looks like sunflower sprouts and is used mainly in Vietnamese soups and sautées. When I ask for small bag, he’s quick to inform me that they’re to be eaten in small quantities, preferably in the evening. This is a bit of a wink-wink, nod-nod moment, where he’s hoping I’ll catch his drift. But I don’t, and ask him why I have to be so careful. The word escapes him, so instead he begins gesticulating around his abdomen in a downward motion that can only be interpreted to mean that these tiny sprouts have powerful laxative properties. He looks me square in the eye, and with a wide grin asks, “Vous comprenez?” (Do you understand?). I nod appreciatively.
Mr. Van De – he looks out for you.
One additional advantage to Van De’s produce – which, frankly is just the cherry on the sundae – is that it’s dirt cheap. I don’t remember exactly how much I paid for my sprouts and greens, but if I think it was something like 1$/100g. And when he saw how excited I was with all my new loot, he went to the back of his truck and returned with two generous handful of amaranth leaves, adding them into my bag free of charge. He didn’t say a word about it; he just smiled.
That extra handful of amaranth leaves ended up in the recipe below, even if I knew nothing about amaranth before this chance meeting with Van De. I just thought they looked interesting (which, because I’m nuts, always seems like reason enough to buy a food item. Ask me about that time I bought that bulb of jicama that sat on my counter for two weeks). So once I got home, I wasn’t really sure what to do with them, aside from spending an inordinate amount of time ogling their purply-green complexion. Mr. Van De suggested adding them to a broth for a simple Vietnamese soup, or blanching them in salted water to serve as a side dish along with rice and meat, which sounded nice. But I remembered a Thai-style noodle recipe I’d had my eye on from Mandy Lee’s Lady and Pups. It’s basically a saucy, spicy noodle dish made with rendered pork fat, crispy pork belly, bits of browned chicken, fried shallots and a bunch of curry seasonings, bound together with coconut milk to create a flavourful, salty-sweet slurry. The recipe itself doesn’t call for amaranth leaves, but after tasting them and finding that they were a little like spinach (with a slightly deeper flavour), I figured it couldn’t hurt to toss in a few chopped leaves into the sauce.
This is the kind of food that makes you go back for seconds (or thirds…) even when you feel you’re about to burst at the midriff. It’s saucy, slurpy, addictive, diet-annihilating food. Don’t be surprised if you make involuntary grunting noises while shovelling every last bite into your gob. I suspect Mr. Van De would approve.
Khao-Soi-Style Noodles with Mr. Van De’s Amaranth Leaves – adapted from Lady and Pups
The rendered pork fat (makes for 2-3 servings – you can freeze any leftovers):
- 130 grams of pork fat-slab (ask your butcher)
- 4-5 shallots, finely sliced
- 1 head of garlic, finely minced
- 1/2 tsp of salt
- 1/2 tsp of ground white pepper
The curry + noodles (for 1 large serving):
- 1 large handfuls of dried rice vermicelli (thick-cut)
- 2 tbsp of the reserved pork fat
- 80 grams of ground chicken
- 1 tbsp of Thai yellow curry paste
- 3/4 cup of coconut milk
- 1/4 cup of chicken stock
- 1 tbsp of fish sauce
- 2 tsp of soy sauce
- 1 tsp of grated ginger
- 1/2 tsp of sugar
- 1/2 tsp of curry powder
- 1/4 tsp of freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp of finely chopped cilantro
- 1 handful of amaranth leaves, chopped (can be substituted with spinach)
- pork crackling + fried shallots/garlic (see recipe above)
- handful of Thai basil, torn into pieces
- lime wedges
- sambal olek
Making the pork crackling + rendering the fat: Freeze the pork fat-slab until hardened (2 hours +). Cut into small diced pieces. Set a non-stick skillet or wok over medium heat and cook the diced pork fat until it has rendered out all its fat and becomes crispy and golden browned. Drain it through a fine sieve over a bowl, collecting the rendered fat. Season the pork crackling with salt and white pepper.
Return the pork fat to the skillet (about 1/2 cup) over medium-low heat, and add the sliced shallots. Stir frequently and fry the shallots slowly until they are dehydrated, and turn medium-golden browned (about 10 mins). Drain them through a fine sieve, over a bowl, again collecting the rendered fat. Season the fried shallots with salt and white pepper.
Return the pork fat to the skillet over medium-low heat. Now add the minced garlic and repeat the same process. Drain the garlic as soon as they turn lightly-golden browned (3 mins). Season with salt and white pepper, and mix the seasoned pork crackling, fried shallots and garlic together. Reserve the pork fat.
To make the noodles: Bring a large pot of water to boil for the vermicelli.
Heat 2 tbsp of the reserved pork fat in a pot over medium-high heat. Brown the ground chicken, then add the Thai yellow curry paste and cook for about 30 seconds. Add all the seasonings and turn the heat down to medium-low, and cook until the mixture has reduced a little and thickened slightly (about 5 mins). Add the amaranth leaves (or spinach) and cook 1-2 minutes or until just wilted (they will reduce substantially in size). Add the chopped cilantro and stir to combine.
Cook the vermicelli according to package-instructions. Rinse the noodles under cold water and drain well. Transfer to the pan with the curry mixture (which is still on medium-low heat). Toss to coat the noodles with the sauce and heat through.
Top with 3 tbsp of the pork crackling + fried shallots/garlic and torn Thai basil leaves. Squeeze lime over all of it, stir, and shove generous forkfuls (or chopstickfuls) into your mouth.