Puha (pronounced "poo-ha")
- aka Sow Thistle (Sonchus)
Puha and Pork Bones
Puha and Sesame Salad
As a child, puha was the bane of my existence. While mums the length of the street would lovingly caw from kitchen windows, "do you kids want sausages or saveloys for tea?", mine would say nothing, employing the power of surprise in the battle to feed her two picky children.
Arriving home in the early evening after hours of play always held an air of dreadful mystery for me and my brother. Unlike the other kids in our street, our mother was Maori, which meant that while the other children in our street always got 'proper' food, we, at least once during the week would encounter something 'different'. This often meant finding a steaming plate of muttonbirds, left-over hangi, paua fritters or if I was unlucky, pork bones and puha.
I hated puha. Cooked, the smell was strong and it was long and stringy in appearance. More commonly known as a 'boil-up' in Maori circles, pork bones and puha for this malcontent usually involved eating the pork, shifting the potatoes around the plate and then fruitlessly compressing the puha into smaller piles. As is often the case with children and unwanted food, mum would begin with a little gentle cajoling. Failing to convince, this led to lectures regarding the food's health-giving benefits; with that tack failing and frustration setting in, threats of smacked bottoms and being sent to boarding school rapidly followed.
Now, in my thirties, I quite like pork bones and puha. It's the perfect winter meal - warming, flavoursome and very comforting. Puha lends the meal a sharpness, lifting the rounded flavours of the pork and potatoes. In the 2005 Monteiths Beer & Wild Food Challenge, the Wellington restaurant winner Mange Tout used puha in a colcannon as part of its winning dish. Puha also has considerable health benefits (mum, it did sink in), being rich in antioxidants and iron. This post is about my efforts in cooking with puha; firstly, pork bones and puha; secondly, an easy yummy salad (unfortunately, there are only two photos in this post - my camera died - my apologies).
Puha, also known as sow thistle, is a green-dark green plant often found growing as a weed in your backyard or for sale at your local community or farmers market. If gathering from your backyard, PLEASE make sure that what you're picking is indeed puha - check the photo at the start of the post, take a look online or ask a Maori (if doing the latter, take food). You'll need a large fistful per person. Cut off the heads, any flowers and the bottom of the stems. The stem contains a milky coloured sap; eaten raw, the stem and leaves have a bitter taste. Cooking does not remove the bitterness but it can be greatly reduced by rubbing the puha plants together (vigourously) under running water - repeat a couple of times.
Putting the puha to one side, place pork bones (I had no luck finding these at the supermarket - try a butcher) into a large pot or if you have lashings of money, pork chops (please try and find bones - boiling pork chops seems so wrong), enough to allow two sizable pieces per person. Cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer. The aim with cooking the pork for a boil-up is to have it very tender, almost to the point of falling off the bone.
When the pork is three quarters of the way through cooking, add potatoes and kumara. When these are on the cusp of being done, place puha on top of the potatoes. When the puha is tender, serve - do not overcook! By the way, don't stir the contents of the pot at any stage during cooking - instructions from my mother, bless... This didn't taste too bad for a first effort. Piping hot - potatoes and kumara imbued with the flavour of pork, the pork itself very tender and the puha lending a wonderful bite to the dish - not bad at all.
Now this is a recipe I stole from the healthy-minded folks at Wild Health, a great organisation based in Nelson. It's for a puha and sesame salad, it's unbelievably easy and quite tasty. You'll need a large bunch of puha, a quarter of a cup of ground sesame seeds and two tablespoons of shoyu soy sauce. Bring a large pot of water to boil on the stove. Prepare puha as described earlier and cut into 2 - 3cm lengths. Drop the puha into the boiling water and blanch briefly. Drain immediately and then leave for a couple of minutes for any excess water to run off - do not squeeze. In a large bowl, mix the puha, ground sesame seeds and the shoyu. Add a little shoyu at first; add more to taste. We had this with some fresh pan-fried flounder - delicious!