Perhaps to remind us of what Lent is all about, clumps of papait with lush green leaves were omnipresent at the public market in my hometown in Pangasinan. Literature in the internet suggests the weed is seasonal, but this was the first time I have seen it being sold. Of course I was not a prolific market-goer in my childhood, but papait never appeared at our table, and my in-laws have not cooked it before.
The leaves looked similar to the Baguio spinach, in the shape, size, color and thickness of the leaves, and indeed they belong to the same family. They looked harmless enough.
Perhaps I have not seen it before because it wasn't sold before - it grows at will, gathered freely in empty fields, or in the kaalugan. Perhaps we never had it, as neither did my in-laws, because of its reputation as the bitterest thing one could ever eat. But I wonder, because we eat ampalaya - the leaves as well as the fruit - like it's fried chicken.
Since there were more papait at the market than ripe tomatoes, which was alarming, and there were as many papait as there were sibuyas at this time of the year, which was normal, I couldn't deny fate, and I had to buy. An in-law was with me that time, and I uttered aloud my decision. She didn't seem thrilled, but replied, sige, ag mo ni atawayan sirin? (okay, so you haven't tasted it before?).
Vendors confirmed the leaves were ampai-pait (too bitter), but that they cure a lot of illnesses and various afflictions. They also volunteered that the leaves are traditionally sauteed with tomatoes after parboiling them.
I was thankful for those freely given information, because when we got home it turned out nobody at my in-laws' household knew how to cook papait. The designated cook hemmed and hawed, uttering out loud she'd boil the leaves briefly, then after a while recanting, until she decided not to cook them, wrapping them instead in banana leaves and shoving the lot in the dark confines of the refrigerator.
At Php10 per bundle, I thought nothing would be wasted if the leaves withered. But I thought again that it won't be money wasted - it would be the opportunity to learn something, and that something was significant because it concerned the food culture of my hometown, and a big part of Luzon, as I learned afterwards.
So I was nothing but persistent, and pointed out one day soon after that it would be nice to have the leaves as a counterpoint to the igado we were having for lunch. So the leaves were dug out from their burial place, and were promptly sauteed, without the advised pre-boiling. There was a bit of "soup" in there, because the leaves were not thoroughly drained after washing.
The cook is what elders call "makaluto," because she can cook ampalaya fruit which turn out with only the slightest hint of bitterness that children spoon lots of it onto their rice. Maybe that magical quality also lent itself to the papait turning out to be not as bitter as foretold.
It was bitter, but not so bitter that it was intolerable. In fact it was milder than ampalaya leaves. The bitterness was normal, in the same acceptable level as, say, mustard greens, or bokchoy. I think it would pair nicely with balatong, or with chopped pechay, if I can get hold of a bunch again. And I will buy again, if I see it. It would be a good addition to my green leafy vegetable repertoire at home, and who knows we might benefit from its purported healing powers.
So I was glad I chanced upon papait, and we had the courage to cook, and eat, it. Good discoveries happen to the brave.
Papait is the term for this vegetable (weed actually) in Pangasinan and Ilocano. It is known in other areas of Luzon as amargoso and sarsalida, and elsewhere as bitter leaf, slender carpetweed, cheng geng xing su cao, with scientific name Mollugo oppositifolia Linn. It is eaten to combat diabetes, hypertension, anemia and various other ailments.
Living With Nature