Creepy weed: Purslane

Creepy weed: Purslane

Aylin Öney Tan -
Creepy weed: Purslane

Succulent, tangy, cool, crisp, and strange, almost like an acquired taste, definitely nothing like the other usual salad greens. Wild purslane, botanically Portulaca oleracea, is one of a kind; it has the most satisfying freshness one needs on a hot summer day. However, we usually overlook the poor thing. In countries where purslane is common, we take it for granted, do not give enough credit to purslane dishes and occasionally just walk over it; while there are also countries where wild purslane is considered a creeping weed to get rid of. Shame on both sides. 

Just as I was playing to scribble an article to write on the merits of purslane, I had to skip that week on my way to Georgia. I was luckily included in a group of international chefs, food writers and journalists to explore Georgian gastronomy. We were to explore markets, taste and discover Georgian ingredients and our dear chef friends were going to cook for us their own creations from their taste discoveries. At the very first lunch at Azarphesha restaurant and wine-bar in Tbilisi, to my surprise, was a plate of purslane that was proudly served forth to us.

Apparently our culinary expedition would not only be about amber wine and beyond, but also about discovering some creepy weeds. Obviously wild purslane was even more popular in Georgia than in Turkey. During the following days, almost every table included a dish with this wild edible green, and lots of others, including jonjoli, which almost became a symbol of our group, but that deserves another article. As I was already fixated writing on purslane before the trip, I naturally followed the track of the creeping plant throughout our journey. 

Purslane in Turkey comes in two varieties, wild or cultivated, which are, in a way, worlds apart, but strangely very similar in sensation. They both have this juicy cactus-y (or cactus-like) feel, an unmatchable perky tang, and a nice bite. In Turkey both varieties are used in similar ways, either raw or cooked. When used raw, it can appear as salads or chopped in yoghurt-based mezes with lots of garlic. When cooked it can be sautéed with lots of onions and served cold or warm with garlicky yoghurt, or cooked in stews with lamb or minced meat, or braised in olive oil with onions, tomatoes and a handful of rice and served at room temperature or even fridge cold. 

Years ago I met Marlena Spieler in Gaziantep in Turkey, over a bowl of wild purslane-yoghurt meze, without even knowing that she was world-recognized food writer. Our conversation practically began over the weed, after endless talks and tables followed with long walks to overcome the hazards of binge eating, she wrote a wonderful article in New York Times on just purslane alone, brilliantly mapping purslane-eating-cultures around the world. She even quoted my suggestion that it will be more sourish when picked early in the morning before the sun is up to its full power. The reason is that the purslane acts pretty much like a cactus plant (look at its tear-like leaves that look like miniscule nopales), it soaks up carbon dioxide during the night, which is stored as malic acid to be used up during the day by the plant. This cycle makes the purslane more sour tasting when picked before the sun rises, that is, before the malic acid content transforms into glucose. 

In Georgia we also discovered a new way to use wild purslane, which is locally called danduri. They use them in salads not in raw form, but briefly blanched. This was a revelation, the wilted purslane still retains its bite, but has a flavor halfway between the raw and cooked form, an unusual mouth feel for us in Turkey, who are used to have it either crisp fresh, or dead cooked. Dressed with a sauce rich in walnuts, it also creates a health boost, as they are the only two plant sources containing high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. No wonder, Georgians are strong folks, there is a lesson to take from them. We take the merits of purslane for granted, we should definitely eat bunches of it, even foraging for the plant creeping in the ground is good exercise! 

Fork and Cork of the Week

During our tasting expedition, two chefs in our group served us purslane dishes in their own ways. Our hosting Georgian chef in the trip was the famous female chef Tekuna Gachechiladze, she made a delicious purslane dish cooked with wild mushrooms, and Turkish chef Maksut Aşkar made a salad inspired by Georgia. He used it raw, the Turkish way, but dressed it with a vinaigrette made with an acidic Qvevri wine, unripe grape juice as we used to use when lemons were not available, and cold-pressed sunflower oil, and topped the salad with thin slices of nectarines, white sour apples and sulguni cheese. Maksut says he always liked the earthy taste of wild purslane better over the cultivated variety, and he was tempted to use it when visiting the vineyards of John Wurdeman in Kakheti. He also grabbed a few punches of under ripe grapes to use instead vinegar or lemon to make his own verjuice. To counter balance the sourness of the salad he thought of using sliced hard nectarines the villagers have been selling on roadsides and the white tart apples he found in the market. The whole salad was rounded up with the fermented taste of sulguni cheese, and the earthiness of cold-pressed nutty sunflower oil. I was particularly excited by the salad because years ago I’ve written my similar version with tart and sweet cherries, olive oil and salty Tulum cheese, but while remained quintessentially Anatolian, Maksut’s salad practically smelled of Georgia, rich and powerful, with a distinct character of its own. Needless to say, both Tekuna’s wildness cornucopia and Maksut’s foraged green salad was matched perfectly with Qvevri Pheasant’s Tears wines, among which I’d pick Kisi 2012, the dry unfiltered amber wine.