Real Food Encyclopedia | Purslane
A fleshy, leafy green, purslane is probably native to Central Asia, the Near East or Europe — or all of the above. There is evidence that purslane has been eaten for at least 2,000 years; it was cultivated in ancient Egypt and was enjoyed by the ancient Romans and Greeks. It was known to the Arabs in the medieval period, and may have been cultivated in Europe as early as the 13th century. (Purslane is also commonly wild-harvested.) The plant was first identified in the United States in Massachusetts, in 1672. It now grows across the globe; in some places it is considered an invasive weed. Weed or not — purslane is a worthy addition to your salad bowl.
Fun Facts about Purslane:
- Don’t confuse purslane (Portulaca oleracea) with “winter purslane,” an entirely different (though related) plant, also known as miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), which has its own interesting history.
- Purslane was said to be Gandhi’s favorite food.
- Author Harold McGee notes in his book, “On Food and Cooking,” that purslane’s tartness comes from an abundance of malic acid. Succulents like purslane convert malic acid to glucose during the day. This means that purslane harvested in the morning will be more tart than purslane harvested later in the day or evening.
What to Look for When Buying Purslane
Purslane can be hard to find — even at farmers’ markets. But if you’re able to find purslane at your local market, look for stems and leaves that are firm and fleshy to the touch: no floppy purslane, please! Avoid any purslane that looks dried out, or that has black or brown spots. Wild-harvested purslane tends to have smaller leaves than their cultivated cousins.
If you want to forage for purslane, here is a great, detailed description of the plant from Wildman Steve Brill’s website, complete with lots of pictures. A note about foraging: please, we beg of you — do not eat anything you are not 100 percent sure is edible! This goes for purslane as well as many other wild edibles. As Wildman Brill points out, there is a poisonous purslane look-alike called spurge, which even tends to grow alongside purslane. So please, be very careful when foraging!
Sustainability of Purslane
Cultivated and wild-foraged purslane harvested for eating generally has minimal environmental impact, due to its niche veggie status. But because the plant is considered an invasive in many places, it is a “weed” that is frequently controlled with noxious herbicides, especially in larger (read: industrial) agricultural settings. (According to botanists at Perdue University, “it is considered one of the world’s worst weeds, an agricultural pest in 45 crops in 81 countries.”) Herbicides like glyphosate (aka, RoundUp) have wide-reaching environmental and public health impacts — what a shame to use them on a so-called “agricultural pest” that happens to be both delicious and nutritious.
Early summer to the end of fall is purslane season. We should note that it is difficult-to-impossible to find purslane in a conventional grocery store: check out your local farmers’ market or find a place to forage for the green.
Purslane and Geography
Purslane grows wild (and thus can be foraged) in most of the US, but there are cultivars of the plant as well, should you want to try your hand at growing it.
Store purslane stems in a jar with just a bit of water. Kept in the fridge, they’ll keep only for a few days, so use them up right away!
Cooking with Purslane
Tart, succulent purslane can be used like any green veggie — and is great both raw and cooked. If you’re planning on cooking it, the green fares best steamed or sautéed, but it is also used in sauces and stews because its slightly mucilaginous quality can be utilized as a thickening agent. The green pairs well with other summer veggies, like green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and even eggplant.
Toss a handful of purslane leaves into a green salad for some lemony crunch, or add it to pasta, potato, bean or grain salads. It is common in Indian cuisine — here’s a recipe for a purslane dal and a delicious-sounding Indian-style cooked purslane side dish with ginger and garlic. The green is also widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine – here’s a recipe for a Persian-style purslane salad with cucumbers and tomatoes and another from the venerable Paula Wolfert for a Turkish lamb stew with purslane. Over at Chocolate and Zucchini, author Clotilde Dusoulier has written a brilliant post called “45 things to do with purslane,” including a comprehensive list of purslane pairings, ideas for purslane salads and even a recipe for a purslane smoothie!
This is going to blow your mind: purslane has the most omega-3 fatty acids (the fatty acids also found in seafood like salmon) of any green vegetable. It’s also high in Vitamins A and C, and has a bit of calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium and potassium.