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Fat hen - a nutritious weed not a chook

"Every spring, gardeners descend on their vegetable patches to prepare the soil for the year's planting. The first thing they do is dig it over to remove the newly growing annual weeds. Chief among these is fat hen. This is scrupulously removed and spinach, perhaps is sown. My advice to them is to not bother. Fat hen tastes just as good."

John Wright - River Cottage A-Z

In fact many say it actually tastes better - t's less bitter - and in northern India it is sown as a crop.

Not to mention its nutritional value, which I reproduce here from one of the websites I found in the course of my 'research':

"A half-cup serving of cooked fat hen contains over 300 mg of calcium and 11,600 IU of vitamin A. In comparison, Swiss chard has 88g calcium and 6,000 IU of vitamin A. Spinach has 93g calcium and 8,000 IU of vitamin A. The greens are also an excellent source of B vitamins, especially riboflavin and folic acid. When you add fat hen to your regular diet, you have amped up your nutritional palate in a big way." World food and wine

Wow! But it's not all good. I should add the caveat that is high in oxalic acid which is not good for all sorts of things, like arthritis, and anyway should not be consumed in large quantities. Which I guess just means don't eat it every day by the bucket load. A bit now and then is fine.

The other bad thing I should mention is that the leaves actually look somewhat like deadly nightshade, which, as you can tell from its name, is poisonous. But the flowers are quite different. The fat hen ones are more like quinoa and the deadly nightshade like tomato flowers - with petals, rather than sort of tall sprays of flowers. But fat hen can vary in looks. Here are a few varieties I found. I think the main thing to look for is those flowers - mostly white I believe, although it has to be said that the picture of the pink ones came from the Agriculture Victoria site.

By now you will know that I am a lover of weeds but I confess I had never heard of this particular weed neither as fat hen or as any of the other names by which it is known: lamb's quarters, goosefoot, pig weed, dirty dick, frost blite, dung weed, melde and mutton tops. In India it's known as bathua and it's official latin name is Chenopodium album, which makes it related to quinoa. I think all those animal names indicate that it is often used as feed for those animals.

I came across it the other day when I was flicking through my River Cottage A-Z looking for something else - I can't remember what now - when I noticed the heading - fat hen. Which was intriguing so I read on a bit, and decided that I would come back to it. So here I am.

Because I read it in the River Cottage book I assumed that it was one of those English things, but no it's here in Australia too and mostly regarded as a weed by farmers, who spray it. However, it can also be useful to farmers because it attracts some kind of leaf mite which would otherwise attack their crops. If they just knew to cut it down before it seeded they would be alright.

It has enormous numbers of seeds, which also can be eaten - like quinoa I guess. There was not as much information about the seeds. But the flower shoots can also be eaten - a bit like an even smaller broccolini.

It also has a very long history - stone age men were eating it and they continue to eat it as a matter of course in the aforesaid India and also in Africa. The American Indians are also know to have eaten it. Nobody is quite sure where it originally came from.

So what can you do with it? Well basically everything you can do with spinach but I did find a few recipes that could point you in the right direction. On the left is Hen chicken from one of River Cottage's handbooks. It's basically a stuffed chicken breast, the stuffing being made from fat hen and wild garlic leaves wilted in butter, with the breasts then wrapped in bacon before baking in the oven with stock. There are recipes online for the other two shown here: Fat hen Indian style and Fat hen pesto bake.

River Cottage has two more recipes - Henakopita with garam masala and eggs, which is a kind of spanakopita but with Indian flavours, and Sorrel and fat hen tart. I have no online recipe for that one, but it's basically a quiche with sorrel, fat hen, onion and goat's cheese. As I say, whilst there may not be many actual fat hen recipes out there you can basically just use it instead of spinach.

I suppose this is not all that interesting, and I don't suppose any of us are going to start cooking with fat hen any day now, but I was intrigued to discover a weed that I knew nothing about - even from my English days of foraging for this and that. I don't remember seeing any amongst the many weeds in our garden, but I shall keep my eyes open for it.

"If there's one weed worth eating, this is it." Canberra Permaculture Design


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