When I was little, my grandmother used to grow papaya trees in the garden. She enjoyed making sauteed vegetables using young papaya leaves. It was bitter and I didn’t like it when I was little. But I got used to it as I got older, and eventually came to appreciate the flavour.
When I was back in Indonesia some time ago, I heard about ‘daun pepaya Jepang’ (literally Japanese papaya leaves). This was unheard of when I left the country in the early 90’s, but now the vegetable is everywhere around the area where I live. There are even shrubs thriving on the roadside near the train stations I go to for my daily commute to the office.
I assumed that pepaya Jepang was just a different variety of papaya. Out of curiosity, I ordered a bunch of it from an online vegetable store. I ended up with 1 kg of fresh pepaya Jepang leaves the next day! I found out to my surprise that pepaya Jepang has nothing to do with papayas.
All about the tree spinach
It turns out pepaya Jepang is not related to the papaya family at all (I did my research afterwards). Known as ‘tree spinach’ in English, pepaya Jepang is a perennial shrub. It is believed to have originated in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The vegetable does not even come from Japan as the name suggests (no one really knows where the name comes from). The plants don’t bear edible fruits like the real papaya. The plant is relatively new to Indonesia, with cultivation beginning only around the late 90’s.
Pepaya Jepang, or tree spinach, has leaves similar to papaya leaves, only they’re much smaller. The raw leaves contain a high content of toxic hydrocyanic acid, so cooking it prior to consumption is really necessary. This vegetable is a good source of protein, vitamins, calcium and iron. Compared to papaya leaves, tree spinach is more tender and it doesn’t taste bitter, making it more palatable for people who can’t tolerate bitter flavours.
For this recipe, I parboiled the leaves until tender, and then sauteed the vegetables. The veggie feels and tastes like a mix of cassava leaves and spinach when cooked. It was really delicious. This was my first time cooking the vegetables and it’s quickly becoming my new favourite.Print
Tumis daun pepaya Jepang, or sauteed tree spinach, is a dish of stir-fried leafy greens made using tree spinach, a vegetable that was introduced into Indonesian cuisine only in the late 90s.
- 500 gr tree spinach
- 5 shallots, peeled, thinly sliced
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled, thinly sliced
- 2 big red chillies, diagonally sliced
- 2 cm ginger, peeled, sliced
- 2 cm galangal, bruised
- 2 salam leaves
- 1 lemongrass, bruised, knotted
- 1 red tomatoes, chopped
- 5 bird’s eye chillies (optional)
- 2 tbsp sweet soy sauce
- Salt to taste
- 3 tbsp cooking oil
- 100 ml water
- Wash the leaves thoroughly and put the leaves in boiling water. Add some salt and boil it for around 20 minutes until tender.
- When the leaves are done, cool and squeeze the water out as much as possible, and cut into smaller pieces. Set aside.
- Heat the oil over medium flame, and sautee the shallots, garlic, big red chillies, ginger, galangal, salam leaves and lemongrass until fragrant (around 4 minutes).
- Add the tomato, mix well.
- Add the papaya leaves, stir the ingredients.
- Add water, sweet soy sauce and salt. Cook for around 15 minutes until most of the liquid evaporates.
- 5 minutes before the veggie is done, add the whole bird’s eye chillies.
- Transfer the dish into a serving bowl.
- If not available, the vegetable can be substituted with kohlrabi leaves, kale, or any green leafy vegetables with a rough texture.
Keywords: green vegetables, healthy, leafy greens, lemongrass, papaya