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The Backyard Vegetables of My Childhood
When I was growing up in the Philippines, my family's backyard garden served as our own private market for fresh, homegrown veggies for our daily meals. Our garden contributed to our livelihood, as well, as my mother used to sell a portion of our harvest at the local market. And although I didn't always love every single one of these vegetables, seeing them growing in container pots or gardens always reminds me of my childhood.
Particularly in the Philippine provinces, backyard vegetable gardens are very common. It's more convenient than having to make a trip to the nearest market, it saves money, and it's healthier, too. When you grow your own vegetables, you can make sure they're free of chemicals.
Let's take a look at some of the most common vegetables in the Philippines.
Scientific name: Momordica charantia
One of the most commonly grown veggies is the bitter melon, or ampalaya. Not only is the ridged green fruit edible, but the leaves are also edible (the leaves are often used to make an immunity-boosting tea). Typically sold in bundles, ampalaya is commonly served with mung beans or incorporated into scrambled eggs. It is also one of the preferred ingredients in two Ilocano dishes: pinakbet and dinengdeng.
Scientific name: Lagenaria siceraria
Bottle gourd, or upo, grows on vines and is another favorite vegetable. It is best to pick the fruit young when the skin is smooth and light green. Upo can be sauteed with misua noodles or substituted for green papaya in tinola.
When upo fully matures on the vine, it turns completely green and is no longer suited for consumption. At this point, it can be harvested and used as a water dipper or bottle.
Scientific name: Sechium edule
Chayote, also known as pear squash and christophene, is known locally as sayote. It's a pear-shaped fruit that grows on a vine, and it often appears in the Filipino dish tinola.
In addition to the fruit, the leaves and the young shoots are edible, as well. Sold in bundles in the markets, the leaves and shoots can be steamed or added to dishes like sinigang, pinakbet, and dinengdeng.
Some people consume the roots, as well, which can be eaten like yams. I haven't tried this myself, so I can't comment on this from my own experience.
Scientific name: Solanum melongena
Eggplant, or talong, always had a spot in our backyard garden. Growing up, I enjoyed many breakfast eggplant omelets, or tortang talong. Eggplants can be broiled, fried, or cooked along with other veggies in many Filipino soups.
Scientific name: Amaranthus viridis
Green amaranth, or kalunay, is a favorite veggie of the Ilocanos region. This vegetable is also known as red spinach, most likely because the seedlings are reddish in color—though this fades to green when the plant matures.
Kalunay is easy to cook, and it works well in almost any Filipino dish. It can be simply steamed with mung beans or sauteed sardines. It can also be included in salads. Some people consume the roots, too.
Note: Kulitis (Amaranthus spinosus) is a related but distinct variety. This variety has spikes along the flowers, leaves, and stems, which can add an extra preparation step if you are cooking with it.
Scientific name: Lablab purpureus
Another common garden occupant is the hyacinth bean, often seen climbing up trellises or whatever it can find for support. When I was young, I used to climb up our nipa hut in order to pick hyacinth beans for my mom. I always thought this was a fun task, but I do remember one time when I spotted worms on the plant. I've always been frightened by worms, so that memory is very clear in my mind!
In addition to the beans, the young leaves and young pods are also edible after the rough edges have been removed. Even the flowers are edible, I've been told. When the pods mature, the beans must be removed and the pods discarded.
Note: Be careful with the dry beans, as they are poisonous. They may be consumed only after a long period of boiling.
Scientific name: Corchorus olitorius
Jute mallow, or saluyot, is another favorite in backyard gardens. It is the leaves of this plant that are consumed, and it is one of the primary ingredients in the Ilocano dish denengdeng, which is a mixture of vegetables seasoned with fermented fish. I should mention that saluyot has a bit of a slimy characteristic, not unlike okra.
Jute mallow provides a good source of calcium, iron, protein, and beta-carotene.
Scientific name: Cymbopogon citratus
When I look at the photo above, I can almost smell the aroma of lemongrass, known locally as tanglad. It was one of my dad's favorites in our garden.
We use lemongrass fairly frequently in Filipino cooking. We use it in chicken tinola and in many seafood dishes (such as milkfish and tilapia). I always make sure I have lemongrass on my arroz caldo, or rice porridge.
Scientific name: Phaseolus lunatus
Lima bean, or patani, is an annual climbing vine with green, ovate leaves with pointed tips. The plant bears white clusters of flowers that turn into green, oblong lima bean pods. The young leaves, pods, and seeds are all edible. The white variety of patani is considered to be the best, whereas the darker-colored beans should be boiled because of the amount of potentially poisonous phaseolunatin they contain.
When boiled, patani seeds are a delicious addition to Filipino dishes such as sinigang. The seeds are a great source of fiber, magnesium, and folate.
Scientific name: Vigna unguiculata
I love sauteed long beans, or sitaw, and it's no surprise that this is another backyard garden favorite. Long beans complement almost any Filipino dish, such as beef or pork stew, or nilaga. It's also a great choice for the sour dish sinigang, which can be made with either meat or fish. Of course, long beans can also be enjoyed steamed, and when eaten this way, they're often served with a popular Filipino dipping sauce called sawsawan. They can also be served with a sauce of calamansi, soy sauce, and a dash of salt; or with a mixture of chopped tomatoes and chives with either soy sauce or fish sauce.
Long beans are also known by a few other names, such as asparagus beans, snake beans, and long podded-cowpeas.
Scientitic name: Moringa oleifera
Moringa, also known as drumstick tree, horseradish tree, and benzoil tree, is called malunggay in Tagalog. Widely cultivated in the Philippines, both the leaves and the young pods are edible.
Moringa's tripinnate leaves can be cooked along with other vegetables in dishes such as tinola (a chicken soup–based dish) and sinigang. They can also be cooked with coconut milk along with shredded, smoked fish and squash. My mom also included the leaves and pods on her favorite Ilocano dish, pinakbet.
Scientific name: Abelmoschus esculentus
Okra is another veggie that is commonly found in Filipino gardens and markets. Also called ladies' fingers, okra has a slimy quality. Some people fry their okra in order to lessen the sliminess.
Okra is a central ingredient in several favorite dishes, including the chicken soup–based dish tinola. It is also an ingredient in the Ilocano dish pinakbet.
Scientific name: Luffa acutanggula
I like thinly sliced sponge gourd with sardines and misua. It also goes well with horseradish and other vegetables in the Ilocano dish dinengdeng.
Sponge gourd is best when it is young; when it matures, it hardens and becomes too spongy to be consumed. So what can we do with mature sponge gourds? They are made into sponges that we use in our kitchens and even in the bath.
Scientific name: Cucurbita maxima
Grown as a creeping vine or with a trellis, squash, known locally as kalabasa, is another common vegetable here in the Philippines. In addition to the fruit, the flowers and shoots are also edible. The young leaves are cooked in the Ilocano dishes pakbet (pinakbet) and dinengdeng. They can also be sauteed with meat or shredded smoked fish, or with coconut milk (guinataan) along with other vegetables such as long beans, eggplants, and moringa leaves.
Scientific name: Psophocarpus tetragonolobus
Sigarilyas is a tropical legume plant; all parts of the winged bean are edible, including the flowers. It is the pods, however, that are typically seen in the markets.
Also known as goa beans, winged beans are known as sigarilyas in the Philippines. Mature winged beans are tough to chew, so it is recommended to harvest pods when they are no longer than six inches.
Sigarilyas can be pickled or stir-fried. They are tasty when cooked with other vegetables for sinigang, and they can also be cooked with coconut milk and shredded smoked fish.
While this sun-loving, fast-growing creeping plant is known for its edible tubers, sweet potato is also grown for its young shoots and leaves.
Sweet potato is easy to grow, a favorite amongst backyard gardens. The leaves are often found in dishes such as sinigang (a soured dish of either fish or meat) and nilaga (a soup dish). Steamed and seasoned with fermented fish along with fried or grilled fish and it makes an enjoyable meal.