As have been my routine, I would check out the neighborhood morning market every Sunday to see what surprises await me. True to form, last Sunday, a bunch of malunggay (moringa) leaves peeked out of a vendor’s table. I rarely see fresh malunggay leaves in this market so I knew instantly that I had to buy it as I didn’t think I’d see it again in a while. I only have good memories of malunggay and I always associate it with my Lola Cion. I fondly remember how my grandmother would put the malunggay branches on a large woven tray. She would start plucking the small leaves from their stems, taking painstaking care to make sure only the leaves remain. It’s a laborious process. She would often ask me to sit down on a small stool and help her pluck out the leaves. I was so bored by the process as it would take about an hour for her to finish. I often ended up playing with the leaves that merited a stern scolding from the lady of the house. At times, she would chat with my grandfather about household matters. At other times, she would have some chit-chat with visitors, all along not missing a single beat in the rhythm of her leaf-plucking exercise. I always marveled at how easily she did it. It’s an exercise in patience and efficiency. And it’s an opportunity for bonding – with family and friends. It wasn’t the time of smartphones and computers and I feel so privileged to experience those days. It’s only now that I am an adult that I fully appreciate the meticulous way our grandmothers prepared food in those days. With the malunggay in hand (10 baht only!), I made my way home clutching other ingredients that would go with the dish — squash, coconut cream, garlic, onion, lemongrass, ginger. Of course, if my grandmother were alive, she would insist on having either shrimps or any meat (e.g. pork, chicken). Sometimes, she would cook this dish with smoked fish flakes and at other times, she would add leftover fried fish slices. On special occasions, she would use crabs. Unfortunately, my version is going to be a bit ‘bare’ and more vegetarian, if you will. Either way, it’s still delicious and nutritious. And so, without further ado, here’s the dish as a tribute to my grandmother who treated all the food she cooked with tender, loving care.
a bunch of malunggay leaves (you can add more)
2 slices of squash 2-3 cups coconut cream (you can adjust the amount according to your preference)
minced garlic (the more, the tastier)
1-2 medium-sized onion, sliced
ginger, sliced (amount according to your preference)
fish sauce and/or salt to taste
Optional: Long beans
Shrimp, crab or any meat
1. Sorry, you have to do it the hard way and pluck out the malunggay leaves from their stems. Go have a karaoke or watch your favorite TV show while doing it. Or have a chit-chat with friends. Believe it or not, it can be a relaxing activity.
2. Once you’ve prepared everything, add the coconut cream on a pan or pot, then throw in the garlic, onion, ginger, and lemongrass, and start stirring. If you want to add pork, this is the time to put it into the pan too. Some prefer to saute the pork for a few minutes before adding the coconut cream. It’s really a matter of personal preference. 3. Keep stirring until the cream starts to boil. Once it’s boiling, add the squash, lower the heat, cover the pan and simmer. 4. Once the squash is partly cooked, add the malunggay leaves. Try not to stir too much at this point. Just make sure the leaves are covered in coconut cream. Cover and simmer. You can add fish sauce and/or a dash of salt. Taste carefully as you don’t want to end up with a salty dish. You may add the chilies at this point too. You will know the malunggay is cooked when it has turned into a dark green color. Half-cooked food enthusiasts might complain that it’s overly done but half-cooked malunggay leaves have a slight bitter taste and clashes with the sweetness of the coconut cream. 5. If the malunggay looks like creamed spinach, the dish is ready. It’s great as a rice topping. This dish, super creamy and sweet, goes well with any fried or grilled fish or meat. My grandmother would often pair it with dried salted fish or dried, crunchy fried squid. Or if you want something decadent, a pork crackling or two will do. So there you have it, a delicious dish that I only associate with a grandmother’s love.