Salads have gotten a bad rap in the past for being associated with ‘dieting’ since they’re low-carbohydrate, low-calorie nutrient powerhouses. But you don’t have to rely on plain, raw vegetables to get a wide range of vitamins and minerals—cooked greens are nutritious, too. The Vitamin A in leafy greens come in the form of carotenoids, namely beta-carotene. They’re also an amazing source for phytonutrients that play a role in reducing inflammation and oxidative stress in the body—that’s why leafy greens help fight against non-communicable diseases.
As with most leafy greens, the serving size is generally 1 cup raw and ½ cup cooked. (Recommended servings vary on an individual level.) And here’s a little trick to learn: When shopping at the market, look for the greens that have bug bites in the leaves—that’s a sure sign that they were grown with little to no chemicals.
Kale has reigned as the trendy green leaf for some time now—thanks to the influence of popular international celebrities—but, here in the Caribbean we have some other cool kids in town that can rival kale for their versatility and nutrient density. Lucky for us in Trinbago, we have such a wide selection of leafy greens available all year round. Take a look below.
1. Bhagi (Amaranth)
A relative of spinach, the perennial amaranth contains a very similar nutrient profile to its green cousin. A half cup of amaranth leaves contains 23 calories, 2 grams of fibre, 2.5 grams protein, lots of Vitamins C, A, K, calcium, manganese and folate. They aren’t just green either! There are local varieties that are variegated with pink and purple, so some come with all purple leaves. Microgreens (young shoots) are highly prized by international chefs for their fresh flavour and garnishing abilities.
Large amaranth leaves contain high levels of dietary oxalates, which can bind to calcium and other minerals, block them from being absorbed by the body and form microscopic crystals. This is a risk factor for kidney stone development. They will need to be boiled with the water strained off to reduce its oxalate content.
This marsh green is a regular at markets with a price that can’t be beat. At $5TTD a bundle, it’s an easy and affordable way to add a whole different dimension to your salad bowl with its pleasantly peppery notes and crunchy stems. One cup of watercress or ‘cressles’ will supply you with high levels of Vitamins A and C, folate, calcium and potassium at just 4 calories per cup. It is also quite high in Vitamin K, which can provide up to 106% of an Individual’s Daily Value (DV) per cup.
Beware, though: It’s a semi-aquatic plant that grows in streams and other running water areas, so watch out for snails and slugs that might be hiding under the leaves. Wash well!
3. Pak choi
Pak choi is part of the Chinese cabbage family and is a great mild-tasting vegetable for stir-fries and soups. When left raw and chopped finely, it makes a great salad and it can be substituted for Napa cabbage when making kimchi. Half a cup of cooked pak choi can supply you with 4 grams of protein, Vitamins K, E, B6, folate, calcium, non-heme iron, manganese and potassium at just 20 calories per cup.
Pak choi contains glucosinolates that are not only responsible for the aroma and flavour of the vegetable, but they help to eliminate toxins in the body, regulate inflammation and have been associated with cancer prevention. Ensure to wash the leaves and stems of the pak choi well as dirt can accumulate at the base.
4. Mustard Greens
Super spicy and pungent, mustard greens are the often-overlooked cruciferous superfood we didn’t know was growing right under our noses. The leaves and stems are both edible and come in a range of colours. They are extremely versatile and work well in curries, stir-fries, soups and stews. They can be added to salads too, if you can tolerate the tongue-tingling spiciness! A half cup of cooked mustard greens provides over 350% of the Daily Value of Vitamin K and 126% of Vitamin A along with high levels of magnesium, Vitamins C and B6, folate, copper, manganese, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and many others at just 20 calories.
6. Dasheen Leaves
In Trinbago, we use young dasheen ‘bush’ typically for our classic Caribbean dishes callaloo, oil down and saheena. You can add chopped leaves to rice, use the leaves to wrap whole fish before baking or steaming, or make a creamed dasheen bush side dish with coconut milk and fresh nutmeg. Dasheen leaves are high in Vitamins A and C and they have good levels of calcium and protein, along with some non-heme iron. However, they are high in oxalates, so they must be cooked before eating!
7. Poi Bhagi (Malabar Spinach)
Malabar spinach is not actually spinach at all; it’s a perennial climbing vine that thrives in our Caribbean climate. When raw, the thick, fleshy leaves are crisp and juicy with subtle hints of citrus and black pepper. When cooked, they look and behave like typical spinach, however, the leaves do not wilt as quickly under heat. This makes it a great addition to soups and stir-fries. The tender green or purple vining shoots are also quite amazing in a tossed salad. A half cup of cooked leaves can supply you with 23 calories, 3 grams of protein, 2 grams of fibre and lots of folate and beta-carotene (Vitamin A), along with calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium. It is an easy vine to grow, so get on it.
7. Arugula (Rocket)
Here’s a favourite zesty salad and sandwich green, boasting a distinct herbaceous, peppery flavour with notes of mustard and nuts. The local rocket leaves are much larger and more pungent than the imported kind and grow quite quickly year-round in our climate. Rocket leaves supply nutrients like Vitamins A, K and C, folate, calcium, magnesium, manganese and potassium at just 8 calories per cup. Rocket is a great accompaniment to a pasta dish or as a substitute for basil in pesto.
8. Sweet Leaf (Katuk)
This perennial leafy green is beginning to make waves locally. A half cup of the cooked sweet pea-flavoured katuk leaves provides roughly 59 calories, 6 grams protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, B-Vitamins and is an incredibly rich source of beta-carotene (Vitamin A) and Vitamins C and K. It’s perfect for salads, soups, stir-fries and as a replacement for bhaji in recipes. The young tips are also edible along with the red flowers and berries.
Originally from Papau New Guinea, this perennial hibiscus relative has large lobed leaves and both the flowers and dark green leaves can be eaten. The leaves are very high in Vitamins A and C, iron, folate, calcium and protein and they have the slimy, mucilaginous qualities of okra; it can be used to substitute dasheen leaves in callaloo. The World Health Organization and UNICEF have recommended it as a good first vegetable for babies in Fiji since the young shoots and leaves contain very little fibre, which makes it easy to digest.
This little plant is so overlooked, it’s often found growing in the cracks of the pavement, with little acknowledgment of its value. One cup of raw purslane is just 7 calories, but its leaves contain more Omega-3 fatty acids than any other land-growing green vegetable. It contains significant amounts of dietary fibre, a range of B-Vitamins along with Vitamin A, Vitamin C, non-heme iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, calcium and copper. Purslane can be eaten in salads or cooked, however, it does contain oxalates, so if you are at risk for developing kidney stones, it is advised that you boil the leaves first.
11. Saijan (Moringa)
Touted as a local superfood, moringa has been praised for its health benefits for thousands of years. Almost all parts of the tree can be eaten or used in herbal medicine. The leaves are highly nutritious, rich in bioactive plant compounds and can be consumed raw, cooked and in powder or capsule form. One cup of the peppery fresh leaves contains 2 grams of protein along with Vitamins B6, C, iron, riboflavin, beta-carotene and magnesium. It is also rich in various antioxidants, including quercetin and chlorogenic acid, which may protect against inflammation in the body and can lead to modest reductions in blood sugar and cholesterol.
Side Note: The green tops of moorai, beets, radishes and carrots are edible. Moorai and radish greens are amazing in a chopped salad.
Persons who are on blood thinners such as Warfarin (Coumadin) should consult with a registered dietitian to determine how much Vitamin K-rich foods are permitted.