Purslane – Redeeming an Ancient Crop

Native to India? Or Iran (Persia)? North Africa, perhaps?  Respectable references have identified each of these places as the origin point of purslane.  Wherever it started, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) quickly spread to the rest of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.  Known as ma chi xian, it has been consumed as a vegetable and applied in herbal medicine to treat digestive and skin ailments in China for centuries.  It was called bardilāga in Arabic, and portulaca in Latin; very likely the Saracens and Romans carried the seeds all over their conquered territories, where the plant got derived names such as verdolaga in Spanish, or pourpier in French.  In Europe, purslane was cultivated and consumed as a vegetable since at least the Middle Ages and, although Europeans brought it to the New World, it is now accepted that native American cultures had previously consumed purslane.  In Mexico, purslane is one of many pre-Hispanic plants in the group of herbaceous edibles known as quelites, from the Nahuatl form quilitl – green edible.  Purslane has also proven to be native to Australia, since indigenous groups there have always used its seeds to make flour for some sort of bread.  Nowadays, purslane is still growing all around the world, basically in any region at an altitude from sea level to 2600 m (8500 ft), and latitudes between 50°N and 40°S, even further North in America and Europe.  Even though crops like spinach, swiss chard and lettuce have displaced purslane at the table, and many gardeners see purslane as a nuisance, in recent years it has been identified as the highest plant source of Omega-3, an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin C, and some B-complex vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine and carotenoids, as well as fiber and dietary minerals (iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and manganese.)

Some Mediterranean and Middle East countries continue to consume purslane as a vegetable.  In Mexico, it has also remained well established as a key ingredient in dishes such as verdolagas y huevos (purslane and eggs), or the classic espinazo de puerco en salsa verde con verdolagas (pork rump in green sauce with purslane.)  In the United States, some up-scale restaurants now feature purslane in salads, soups, and main courses. Many “Field-to-Table” enthusiasts want to include it as a nutritious green addition to their eating rainbow, so foraging for common purslane has become a popular activity.  I found purslane volunteering in my garden, and have allowed it to grow as a free source of healthy and delicious greens for salads, stir-fries and Mexican dishes.  As with any foraging crop, it is imperative to correctly identify purslane before harvesting, since there are look-alikes that are not edible, such as spotted spurge (Euphorbia maculata):

For those not familiar with purslane, it might be useful to check my “From seed to table” file with information on its identification and cultivation, but I am no authority, so please use it only as a guide.  If there is any doubt at all, do not consume; also, if not found volunteering/wild, seed companies (even Amazon) sell purslane seed of varieties that grow upright and are not as invasive as common purslane.

I had a nice batch of purslane begging to be cooked, maybe in green sauce in that rich stew of pork rump, with tomatillo, herbs and aromatics, and some cubed potatoes.  It is delicious and very simple to prepare, and people in Mexico eat it year-round.  Unfortunately, in places such as my area in Southern Ontario, purslane is a summer crop, and a steamy stew was not the best choice of meal for a hot evening.  Because the marriage of flavours in this dish has been honed to perfection over centuries, I did not have a heart to change the ingredient list, so I decided to keep it mostly intact, and instead deconstruct the stew into four separate elements that required less cooking time, hence making them more appealing for a summer dinner: 1) Pork rump is a bone-in cut, so I chose center-loin with rib pork chops, which could be grilled in no time; 2) A cooked tomatillo sauce was prepared separately (store bought would do in a pinch); 3) Instead of plain potatoes, I prepared them mashed; and last, but definitely not least, 4) The purslane and aromatics were stir-fried instead of boiled (as a bonus, I think the flavour was fresher, and the texture, crispier.)

Deconstructed Pork in Green Sauce with Purslane 
Puerco en salsa verde con verdolagas, deconstruido

Printable recipe: Deconstructed Pork in Green Sauce with Purslane

Ingredients

4 cups purslane
1 tbsp vegetable oil
½ white onion, finely chopped
½ cup cilantro, coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 cups cooked tomatillo sauce, homemade (see my recipe) or bottled
2 cups mashed potatoes, warm
4 center-loin (with rib) pork chops, grilled
Corn tortillas and lime wedges, to serve

Clean purslane, remove roots and damaged leaves, wash thoroughly and drain:

In a large frying pan, warm up oil over medium heat; sauté onions until translucent.  Add purslane and cook for two minutes, stirring constantly.  Incorporate cilantro, remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper:

Meanwhile, keep mashed potatoes and pork chops warm; heat up green sauce in a sauce pan.  To plate: arrange a layer of green sauce on a dinner plate; place one pork chop on the sauce; serve ¼ of the purslane stir-fry on top of the pork chop; and scoop a portion of mashed potatoes on the side (serves four):

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9 thoughts on “Purslane – Redeeming an Ancient Crop

    1. Hi, Cathie. If you grow tomatoes, you can grow tomatillos (for the green sauce. I have a growing guide under “Gardening”) I hope you get to try the recipe; I have never tried curly dock, but I probably should soon, it always makes me think of spinach, thanks for the tip!

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  1. thanks for the description of the plant. it makes me think I ought to take a plant class to see what “weeds” are growing in my yard to see which ones are useful. This year I let the weeds grow to see what would happen. I’ve gotten some cacti growing now much to my surprise. Sunflowers too. However most of them I don’t what they are. Except for the tumbleweeds which I pull when I see them. I see something that looks a bit like your purslane but I can’t be sure. It’s cool that you know what it is.

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    1. Cacti, wow! I am hoping to write about cacti, in general and edible, soon; apparently even in Southern Ontario there is at least one species growing wild. Purslane has several look-alikes; as they grow bigger, it becomes easier to ID, but a plant class would be the safest way to go, for sure.

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