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Hunger Management

Recipe: Moringa leaves for better sleep, energy boost

The small leaves pack a punch and come with health benefits

Every day, it seems, somebody somewhere finds some new-fangled food or food combination that can cure a million ills, boost your immunity, bring a glow to your face and help you live longer.

Not so long ago, people were guzzling lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup mixed with water. The concoction is said to detoxify the body and boost metabolism. People have also been adding butter (from grass-fed cows only) to their morning coffee. Bulletproof coffee, as it is called, is supposed to aid weight loss and help people concentrate better.

Acai berries from the Amazon are touted as a superfood. They are rich in antioxidants and are said to stimulate the immune system and boost energy. The berry is an uninspiring, vaguely purple colour when mashed up, so health food places jazz it up with colourful fruit and toasted coconut to make it appealing.

More bizarrely, alpiste or canary seeds, essentially bird food, is now thought of as good for humans. It can be ground into flour and used to make bread, cookies and snacks that are gluten free and protein rich.

I have always been sceptical about these claims. Just as soon as one article appears on the Internet, touting the health benefits of this or that, another will appear, debunking everything in the first article.

  • MAKE IT YOURSELF: MORINGA STEW

  • INGREDIENTS

    • 150g to 200g moringa leaves (above), weighed with stems

    • 1 large onion, about 250g

    • One 439g can of chickpeas

    • 200g paneer (below)

    • Two 411g cans of whole peeled tomatoes

    • 2 to 3 bird's eye chillies

    • 3 Tbs cooking oil

    • 2 tsp black mustard seeds

    • 2 tsp fennel seeds

    • 1 tsp cumin seeds

    • 700g passata (bottom)

    •  2 tsp sugar

    • salt to taste

  • METHOD

    1. Remove moringa leaves from stems, discard the stems and place leaves in a large colander. Rinse thoroughly under running water and leave to drip dry.

    2. Peel and chop the onion, drain chickpeas and discard the liquid, cut paneer into 1cm or 2cm cubes. Strain the liquid from canned tomatoes into a bowl and roughly chop up the tomatoes. Add them to the bowl and set aside. Slice the chillies.

    3. Pour oil into a wide and deep pot set over medium high heat. When the surface of the oil starts to shimmer, add mustard, fennel and cumin seeds. Stir the spices until the mustard seeds start to pop and the fennel and cumin are fragrant. Add the onion and stirfry until translucent. Add chillies and canned tomatoes, stir to mix well. Add passata and sugar. Have a taste and add more sugar if necessary, to temper the tartness of the tomatoes. Bring the sauce to a boil and turn the heat down to low. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring every five minutes or so.

    4. Add chickpeas and paneer, mix them in well and cook for 5 minutes. Add the moringa leaves and cook another 5 minutes , stirring, until the greens are wilted. Have a taste of the stew and add salt, if needed.

    5. Dish into a serving bowl and serve immediately, with bread or rice.

  • Serves four

So I use my taste buds as a guide. If it tastes good, I'll eat it.

While I love a good acai bowl for dessert, I hardly ever think about the health benefits when eating it.

However, that might have to change.

Over dinner, a friend of mine tells me about moringa leaves. A gym friend of hers says it is good as a sleep aid and my interest is piqued. I am an insomniac and anything natural that might help me sleep is worth investigating.

Of course, I read up about moringa and the Internet is full of information about how it has anti- inflammatory properties, is full of antioxidants and is heart-healthy to boot.

I am sceptical, but the need for sleep prompts me to order moringa tea bags and capsules online for my friend and me. We are both surprised by its effects.

The tea is a great sleep aid for my friend, who, like me, suffers from insomnia. The capsules help me sleep, but also give me an energy boost. They get me through a couple of intense months at work and I start to think maybe there is something to the claims.

Now, the irony is that fresh moringa leaves are available in Singapore, and the climate here is suitable for growing the plant. So technically, I do not have to order the tea and capsules from abroad.

If I am more diligent, I would buy the fresh leaves, available in Tekka Market, and juice them daily. But I am not, so I am sticking to the tea and capsules. However, I can use moringa leaves in cooking and have been experimenting with them.

In Filipino cuisine, the leaves are used in soups and in Indian cooking, the seed pods, called drumstick, are used in curries and sambar.

The raw leaves have a peppery bite and are astringent. If you like that flavour, moringa leaves are great in salads. Toss it in a vinaigrette with apples and walnuts, for example.

But I love how the flavour mellows when the leaves are cooked, and how the fleshy greens have a good bite. So far, I have sauteed the leaves with mushrooms and slices of lup cheong, added them to soup with noodles, done a stirfry with chicken and cashews, and all are good.

This week's recipe is for moringa stew. I make a spiced tomato sauce with canned tomatoes and passata or uncooked tomato puree, flavoured with chilli and the aromatic trio of mustard, fennel and cumin seeds. Aside from a large bunch of moringa leaves, I add chickpeas and paneer to make it a one-dish meal good with baguette or rice.

Instead of chillies and the spices, flavour the sauce with oregano and basil for a different vibe and break up balls of buffalo mozzarella over the stew before serving. In place of chickpeas, use black-eyed peas or kidney beans. Chicken, tofu or sausages are good additions too.

Add moringa to your favourite minestrone soup recipe or use it in place of spinach in spanakopita. It can even go into the crustless quiche I wrote about some weeks ago.

If nothing else, moringa is an interesting ingredient to experiment with and to enjoy. But a good night's sleep and extra energy are nothing to be sniffed at.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 11, 2016, with the headline 'Moringa boost'. Print Edition | Subscribe