Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Mieko Horikoshi
On a recent visit to Polipoli Farms in Waiehu, I spotted a 12-foot-tall bele bush, aka Tongan spinach. “It’s what Tongans use instead of taro leaf,” said farm owner Lehia Apana. “My brother is a fireman and he made lau lau* for dinner one night for his crew. They loved it and they had no idea it was bele, not taro.”
Bele (Abelmoschus manihot) is a veritable superfood. It provides twice as much protein as spinach, as well as vitamins A and C, riboflavin, thiamine, iron and other essential minerals. It is also used medicinally, and is reputed to relieve throat irritation, skin rashes and cold symptoms.
Years ago, I had a bele bush in my garden and tried sneaking its leaves into veggie wraps to feed my family, but they deemed it too “wild and foreign,” and there were no more takers after that. The chickens loved it, though, so they were treated to lots of homegrown organic greens for a spell. But after hearing this story of under-the-radar bele usage, I was determined to try it again. So I departed Polipoli Farms with a big stack of green bele leaves riding shotgun.
Once home, I retreated to the kitchen. I didn’t have the ingredients for lau lau, so I decided to test-run the bele disguised as spinach in eggs Florentine the next morning. I washed the bele, melted butter in a large pot and sauteed some onions and garlic. I tossed in the bele and five minutes later, the mass had cooked down to about three cups and resembled spinach in every way. I placed it in a container and put it in the fridge.
The next morning, I asked my husband, Chris — who is also known at home as the Hollandaise King — to make eggs Florentine to top my homemade English muffins. “The spinach is already cooked and in the fridge,” I said casually. “You just have to warm it through.”
When we sat down to eat, Chris commented: “This spinach is really good, and the dish was fast since it was already precooked. We should do that more often.” It was then that I disclosed the secret identity of the “spinach,” and Chris couldn’t believe it was true.
That afternoon, I pureed the remaining bele and added shrimp stock, a light roux, sherry and cream to make shrimp bisque. It was broke-da-mouth delicious!
Spinach is difficult to grow at our 350-foot elevation, so bele will be a good substitute. Since it can be propagated with cuttings, I plan to avail myself of more from Polipoli Farms on my next visit!
*Lau lau is a Hawaiian dish made with pork or fish that is seasoned, wrapped in taro leaves, and then steamed.
Sautéed Bele Recipe
Prep Time 20 Minutes
- 1 pound bele, thoroughly washed
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ½ medium onion, diced
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- salt and pepper, to taste
- lemon wedge, optional
Directions Remove stems from bele leaves and discard. Melt butter over medium heat in a deep pot and add onions and garlic. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 7 minutes. Add bele and toss with tongs until leaves are coated with butter/onion mixture. Cover and cook 5 to 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper (to taste). Serve with a lemon wedge, if desired.