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Food in the 'Hood

The “Prince of Leafy Greens”

In one ancient civilization, few had to be prodded to “eat their spinach.” The Persians venerated the plant for its nobility and sprightly taste. A member of the goosefoot family, a group of greens whose spines have a distinctive webbed shape, spinach was born and nurtured in Central Asia. Unknown to the early Greeks and Romans, it was beloved by the Persians, who first cultivated it in the 4th century A.D.

The Persians called the plant isfanakh, or green hand. In their kitchen, spinach occupied a lofty perch. Like coriander, parsley, mint, dill, and other lively greens known as sabzi, spinach was prized as an herb that added verve to a dish.

Spinach also had medicinal virtues, the Persians believed. Al Razi, a 9th century physician, pronounced spinach “temperate, good for the throat, the lungs, the stomach and the liver. It sweetens the belly and is a good, beneficial food.”

The Chinese were early devotees of the vegetable. Three centuries after it was first cultivated, the King of Nepal, presented it as an offering to the Chinese emperor, who had commanded all subject states to send him their best plants. The King had gotten the spinach from Persia.

The new arrival was called poh ts’ai, or Persian vegetable. The Chinese, who used it in soup, also gave spinach names like “red root vegetable” and “parrot vegetable.”

In China, spinach satisfied a spiritual hunger. The vegetable, food scholar Frederick Simoons points out, was adopted by Buddhist priests as a “fasting food.”

The Moors, who conquered Persia in the 7th century, spread spinach throughout their empire. By the 11th century, the invaders, who now controlled large parts of Spain, were planting it around Seville. Ingenious farmers, the Muslims had mastered the art of growing produce in hot and arid regions. They irrigated dry, inhospitable soil, turning it into ard bulawa (“sweet earth”), a fertile seedbed for vegetables.

Isfinah, its Arabic name, tugged at the heartstrings of Muslims. Ibn al-‘Awwam, an agronomist, who lived in Spain, extolled spinach as the “prince of leafy greens.”

Spinach was a favorite ingredient in Arab cuisine. A recipe in the 12th century Baghdad Cookery Book, a collection of dishes prepared for the Islamic elite, called for a lavishly spiced kebab and spinach plate. It was seasoned with cumin, garlic, and salt and sprinkled with coriander and cumin.

In the rest of Europe, spinach was considered more as a healthful herb than as a vegetable. The “Spanish vegetable scorns barren areas, but grows very happily whenever planted,” the 16th century botanist Leonard Fuchs wrote. The plant was “cultivated by everybody like a pot herb.”

It fitted neatly into medieval religious culture, food historian Waverly Root notes. In 1351, spinach was on the list of vegetables prescribed for monks on fast day.

In Italy, the appetizing green was incorporated into the Catholic regimen. Introduced by Arab traders around 1000 A.D, it sprouted propitiously. Sown in autumn, spinach was ready to be harvested in the spring, just in time for Lent.

Spinach, the Italians discovered, was a delectable filling and melded nicely with eggs and cheese. Vincenzo Corrado, an 18th century food writer, enticed his readers with descriptions of spinach dumplings filled with eggs and grated cheese.

The French, like the Italians, admired the plant. “It has longer leaves, thinner and greener than the common parray (chard) and it is eaten at the beginning of Lent,” the Menagier of Paris, an anonymous 14th century gastronomer, wrote. He praised spinach as an ideal addition to an egg and cheese tart made with green beet leaves, parsley, and chervil.

French cooks seized on spinach’s remarkable ability to absorb butter. The English food writer Jane Grigson discusses a famous French recipe in which spinach was cooked and reheated every day for five days, each day infused with butter. The object was to produce a purée of one pound of spinach containing 10 ounces of butter. Grilled or roasted meats were served with the sauce.

Some French culinary experts, however, were less than enthusiastic about the green. “Spinach is not worth much essentially, it is susceptible of receiving all imprints; it is the virgin wax of the kitchen,” 18th century gourmet Grimod de la Reyniere declared.

English horticulturalists were perplexed by the curious plant. John Gerard, the 17th century herbalist, lumped spinach together with the other herbs he studied, albeit one with its own unique attributes. This “sallade herb,” he said, was “evidently cold and moist, almost in the second degree, but rather moist. It is one of the potherbs whose substance is waterie.”

John Evelyn, 17th century botanist and salad advocate, was mostly dismissive of the green: “spinach: of old not used in sallets [salads] and the oftener kept out the better . . . but being boiled to a pult . . . is a most excellent condiment.” For all this, Evelyn wrote, the herb had curative powers. It was “profitable for the aged” and beneficial in a “Sick Man’s Diet.”

In time, the English added the green to their culinary repertoire. So irresistible were its tender leaves that spinach gradually replaced the native, wild greens in their diet.

Influenced by the Arabs’ penchant for balancing the sweet with the sour and savory, English cooks prepared many spinach dishes. In one Elizabethan recipe, boiled spinach is flavored with currants, butter, vinegar, and sugar served on bread or toast and strewn with sugar.

The English especially fancied spinach tarts. At a time when fruits were difficult to store, spinach often replaced them in pastry. “This is good among tarts in the winter for variety,” one 18th century writer put it. Recipes for spinach tarts instructed readers that the green be “spiced, sugared, and often boiled ‘as thick as marmalade,’” English food historian C. Anne Wilson points out.

In later recipes, pulped spinach was suffused with eggs and cream and made fragrant with crystallized orange or lemon peel. This approach was a legacy of Arab chefs who added honey, almonds, and eggs to their greens. The traditions live on when we add a dash of nutmeg to spinach today.

The Greeks, too, were experts at marrying spinach and pastry. Spanakopita, the triangular pie filled with feta and greens and seasoned with dill, was a city dweller’s version of a village repast. Country women filled their phyllo pastries with fennel, dandelions, sorrel, mustard, and other greens.

As in Western Europe, Greek religious custom enhanced the appeal of the leafy green. Spinach pies were a fixture of the Lenten table.

The oldest cultivators of spinach, the Persians, continue to be its keenest culinary innovators. Boorani esfenaj, thick, garlicky yogurt permeating chopped spinach, is a scrumptious appetizer. It was one of a group of dishes named for the wife of a Caliph who adored yogurt.

In another Persian delicacy, spinach is mixed into saffron rice, which is then baked. Another regal delicacy, it was cooked in the court kitchens of the 17th century ruler, Shah Abbas.

The Persians blend spinach and eggs to make a greenish “kookoo,” a pancake shaped snack. Wrapped in bread, it is an avidly eaten street food.

Searching for a pick-me-up on a rough day, look no farther than an easily prepared Persian spinach and egg ensemble, Nargesi-ye Esfenaj. When my Iranian friend, Majid Parcham, came home from school, he fondly remembers his mother picking spinach from her garden, steaming it, and sautéing it with onions. She then cooked two sunny-side eggs on top of the bed of leaves. All to soothe a schoolboy’s spirits. Simple, fresh, and flavorful, this dish named for the narcissus, a white-petaled flower with a bright yellow heart, pays homage to the noble green.

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Spinach Specialties

George’s Townhouse King of Falafel, 1205 28th Street, 342-2278. This Lebanese snack bar sells spinach pies.

Jyoti Restaurant, 2413 18th Street, 518-5892. The Indian menu includes the well-known saag paneer, spinach flavored with cubes of a fresh white cheese similar to feta.

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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