Sayur Manis: Delicious, But Also Deadly, Greens From Borneo

Posted on January 7, 2020 · Posted in Blog, General, Personal

Sayur manis at a restaurant in Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo. The greens were sautéed with onions, red pepper, dry-fried shallots and egg white.

Konstantin Kakaes for NPR

Traveling across Borneo, I came across a most delicious vegetable.

Stir-fried with red peppers, shallots and egg in a thin, juicy gravy, sayur manis tasted both rich and nutritious, like very good spinach. But it had more complexity than spinach, as though it had been fortified with broccoli and infused with asparagus. The flavor itself wasn’t so much novel as it was a recombination of familiar tastes in a new and exciting way.

Sayur manis has all the traits of a “superfood.” It’s packed with protein, antioxidants and other nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin E and a compound called lutein, a key pigment in human retinas. It’s easy to grow, at least in the tropics. It’s the kind of thing health-food nuts would put in smoothies.

But sayur manis smoothies are a bad idea; though it can be eaten raw, doing so in even moderately large quantities has proven deadly. Sayur manis is hardly alone in this; in many plants, the same chemicals with health benefits might also do damage. Despite years of research, scientists still don’t understand the toxicity mechanism.

Mohammed Rizman, the proprietor of the restaurant where I first tried sayur manis, explained to me that it also goes by “Sabah veggie” because it’s so popular in the Malaysian Borneo province of Sabah. Though it grows wild, he buys his from a wholesaler in Kundasang, a town on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia at about 13,500 feet. When he served it to me, at the night market in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital, it tasted like the perfect food in the perfect place.

When I returned to the U.S., I discovered that sayur manis has many more names. To rule out any confusion, your best bet may be the scientific sauropus androgynusSayur manis, the Malaysian name, simply means “sweet vegetable.” According to Wendy Hutton’s A Cook’s Guide to Asian Vegetables though wild varieties are eaten across the region, commercial cultivation began in Sabah, and only the cultivated varieties have edible stems, which supply the asparagus taste.

Bee Yinn Low, a Malaysian living in California who has developed recipes for companies like Betty Crocker and Red Boat fish sauce, says that she’s nostalgic for mani cai—another name for the vegetable—from her childhood in Malaysia. Even in Penang, where she grew up, she says it was the kind of delicacy prepared at home, not usually in restaurants.

Low prizes it for its texture — “more of a bite” than spinach, she says. She occasionally gets some from a friend who grows it in California but there’s never been enough demand for it to be commercially grown in the U.S.

But there might be another reason for its relative scarcity: Sauropus can be deadly. It can cause lung failure, which is odd for something that you eat, rather than smoke.

Uncooked sayur manis leaves can cause lung failure. Scientists say they don’t yet know which compounds in the plant do damage to the lungs.

Konstantin Kakaes is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and the author of the e-book The Pioneer Detectives. –npr.orgNatural memory enhancer