I have almost zero recollection of the time as a kid when I enjoyed red amaranth stir fry in India. Lal math, as it’s called in my native language, Marathi, never enticed me as a kid. But last summer when I decided to grow red amaranth from seed purely as an experiment, I was astonished by the sheer volume and the vivid colour of the leaves it produced. The biggest challenge then was how to cook it.
A few phone calls to Mum in India later, I decided to cook a stir fry. It was so quick and easy, with just a handful of ingredients. This year I sowed the seeds with confidence and they have yielded an even bigger bounty so I am hoping to share a few more recipes using lal math, red amaranth, red spinach or red chawli – just pick the name of your choice – it’s all the same.
Red amaranth is still a bit of an exotic plant to grow in the UK, though it does cope with the climate here. British gardeners seem to grow it for its blossom and as a decorative plant for borders. However, its leaves are not only nutritious but also delicious once cooked. It’s a good source of iron, fibre and aids digestion. If you enjoy salads, add a handful of red amaranth leaves to help strengthen your bones as it’s rich in calcium. A quick Google search will reveal all its nutritious benefits so I won’t bang on about them here.
Unlike India where this vegetable is widely available in markets, I have to grow it myself; planting out in the garden in spring to harvest in summer. Thankfully it’s very easy to grow.
How to grow amaranth in the UK?
I typically sow red amaranth seeds in tiny peat pots in February or March when the weather outside is still cold. Sprinkle a pinch of seeds in a peat pot filled with fine compost. Try and space each seed out a little so that they don’t crowd each other out and stand a better chance of survival. Cover the seeds with a very thin layer of compost, about 5mm. Water gently and leave them to grow indoors in a propagator kept on a sunny windowsill. Lidded propagators retain moisture well so you only need to water when the soil feels dry. Overwatering tends to rot the seeds or make the stems weak and waterlogged causing them to wilt under their own weight.
After 3-4 weeks when the seedlings have shot up and the stalks have strengthened, they can be repotted into a slightly bigger pot indoors. At this stage, they can happily grow without the propagator. Gently sprinkle water only when the soil looks dry.
Come June, they’re ready to be repotted outside. I don’t really worry too much about thinning them out but there will always be a few weaker seedlings. I discard those and plonk the entire contents of the pot into a bigger hemp pot filled with peat-free homemade compost. Water and let them grow. As the UK weather is still unpredictable with a chance of frost until mid-May, it’s best to keep an eye on the forecast or keep the pots in a greenhouse or polytunnel if you have that option. Watering once a week is enough unless there’s a heatwave. Soon the amaranth plants will flourish so rapidly that they will start flowering. If you’re growing it for its tender red leaves, trim the flowers regularly. Harvest the tender leaves as and when needed for cooking.
I found it’s pretty resilient to pests, probably because I grow it in a polytunnel. But slugs are rather partial to its leaves so sprinkle eggshells around the pots or leave a makeshift slug trap.
Picking amaranth leaves
The leaves are ready to harvest after 4-6 weeks of sowing. Crisp, fresh mature leaves are perfect to cook with. Discard any leaves that are looking floppy and yellow. The more mature leaves often have a chunky stem that can be removed. I stash the stems in the freezer to make soup.
How to cook lal mathachi bhaji / red amaranth stir-fry / red chawli subzi?
I like to keep this dish simple to maximise the inherent flavour of red amaranth. Chopped onion and fresh coconut make it supremely delicious. I simply wash red amaranth leaves before tempering with the usual Indian spices such as mustard, cumin, asafoetida et al. Then fry some chopped onion along with garlic and green chillies before tossing the leaves in. Finally, a little sprinkle of grated fresh coconut makes this red leafy stir fry a joy to gobble up with a wholesome bhakri (Maharashtrian millet flatbread).
How to prepare and store fresh red amaranth?
Remove the chunky stalks and store them in the freezer for soups or vegetable stocks. If you want to keep the fresh leaves for longer in the fridge for later use, don’t wash them. Simply wipe them clean to remove excess grit. Store loosely in an airtight container or a (reusable or recyclable plastic) freezer bag. Keep in the fridge for 2-3 days but no more.
However, if you want to cook straight away then simply remove grit and mud from the leaves by washing the leaves thoroughly. The chunky stalk can’t be cooked but you can freeze them for later as mentioned earlier.
How to store red amaranth stir-fry?
Once cooked the amaranth stir fry keeps well in the fridge for up to 4 days. I haven’t frozen it so can’t comment on that.
Lal Mathachi Bhaji / Red Amaranth Stir-Fry / लाल माठाची भाजीCourse: MainCuisine: Maharashtrian, IndianDifficulty: Easy
A quick low-waste red amaranth stir fry called ‘lal mathachi bhaji’ in Maharashtra. Amaranth is primarily grown as a decorative plant in the UK. However, its leaves are nutritious and delicious when cooked in a stir-fry. It goes wonderfully with roti, chapati or bhakri, a millet flatbread.
165g fresh red amaranth (aka lal math or red spinach leaves)
1 onion (chopped)
4 green chillies (chopped)
4 cloves of garlic (coarsely pounded in a pestle & mortar)
25g fresh coconut (grated)
4 tbsp sunflower oil
½ tsp mustard seeds
¼ tsp cumin seeds
⅛ tsp asafoetida
½ tsp red chilli powder
Salt to taste
- Wash the amaranth leaves thoroughly under a running tap or in a bowlful of water to remove any grit. Then, drain and chop them coarsely.
- In a frying pan over a medium flame, splutter the mustard and cumin seeds in the hot oil. Add the asafoetida followed by the crushed garlic. Cook until the garlic goes light golden in colour.
- Tip in the chopped onion and fry well with a lid on for another 30-45 seconds. Add salt to speed up the cooking process.
- Throw in the chopped green chillies and cook for 30 seconds. Follow with the red chilli powder and stir.
- Now stir in the washed and chopped red amaranth leaves. Cook covered for 10 minutes over a low to medium flame.
- Finally, tip in the fresh coconut and give it all a good mix. Taste and adjust the seasoning before cooking for another 2-4 minutes. Serve hot with either chapati or bhakri (millet flatbread) or rice.
- For this dish just pick the fresh mature leaves, not the chunky stalk or flowers. The stalk and flowers can be frozen for future use in veg stocks.
- Chopping the amaranth leaves is optional but rinsing them isn’t.
- You can also add crushed roasted ground peanut to this dish if you like. Add it just before the coconut. I prefer it without.
- Feel free to skip either the red chilli powder or the green chillies if you prefer something a little less spicy.
- You can use desiccated coconut if you don’t have fresh coconut. However, the texture is a little different.
- This stir fry is traditionally enjoyed with sorghum millet flatbread called bhakri. But you can equally have it with chapati, roti or even rice.