Grow your own chipilín for tamales, pupusas


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There’s a secret to sprouting the notoriously difficult chipilín seed. Los Angeles gardener Victor Diego says the best approach is to put the seed in an oven’s warming tray for a week. Let it dry. Then plant.

“It will open,” he promised.

Chipilín (Crotalaria longirostrata) has been called one of the most important edible leaves used by humans globally. Native to southern Mexico and Central America, it’s used in tamale masa, soups, omelets and pupusas. It has the flavor of watercress or sour clover mixed with spinach -- a flavor improved by cooking (which explains why it’s not usually eaten raw). Besides being a staple in cooking, it’s a nitrogen-fixer, helping to enrich soil. And it makes a decent licuado, the Latin American equivalent of a smoothie.

But chipilín also grows like a weed, popping up in abandoned places. Frank Mangan, a professor in the department of plant and soil sciences at the University of Massachusetts, is overseeing a research project focusing on immigrant populations and the crops they grow. For his group of farmers growing chipilín, he had to get the seed approved for importation from El Salvador by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s considered an invasive plant, and it’s banned in Australia and Hawaii, where it has gained a toehold. Mangan’s project allows for sale of the crop -- at $4 a pound -- and he said the farmers can’t grow it fast enough.


‘It’s day-length sensitive, and shorter daylight days make it flower,’ he said. ‘For us, that’s in August.’ Mangan’s research station in South Deerfield, Mass., grows the chipilín like peppers or tomatoes. The plant starts in a greenhouse and gets transferred to a plot and harvested every few weeks.

“It’s like alfalfa and keeps growing,” Mangan said, adding that the potato leaf hopper is the primary pest.

At the Stanford-Avalon Community Garden in L.A., chipilín has a longer life, not going to seed until the end of summer. Here gardeners have it growing in rows. At their garden party at the end of October, gardeners offer chipilín and other rare seeds for sale. It’s one of the few places in the country where it’s available.

Chipilín is one of a group of quelites, ‘wild greens’ that traditionally have been harvested in Meso-America. We’ll have more on quelites in the weeks to come, so stay tuned.


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-- Jeff Spurrier

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