(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 7, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Sooo then, what are those brèdes now? Well, the word is used in the Mascareignes archipelago to name a wide variety of greens; that is, edible shoots and leaves, sometimes flowers, which are always eaten cooked. One given explanation of the etymology for this name would be of Indian origin (remember there is a large Indian community on both Mauritius and Reunion) which call Amaranthus ‘bret'. The Portuguese language turned it into ‘bredo' which then became the ‘brèdes' in Creole of both islands.
There are two ways for cooking brèdes; either using plenty of water and cooking for some time which will lead to a kind of soup ('bouillon') or without any water on strong fire which will produce a more consistent result ('fricassée'). Most of the time onions, garlic, hot pepper, oil and salt are required, a tomato can be tossed in for more juice and depending on taste the chef may use fresh ginger rhizomes, smoked meat (known locally as ‘boucané') and various spices such as curry or powdered turmeric. The basic way is to slightly brown the sliced onions in oil (adding turmeric will give a nice golden colour), add garlic and hot peppers then toss in the sliced brèdes and ginger, cook on rapid fire stirring often enough to avoid the mixture to stick. It will be eaten with the traditional trilogy of Creole food; ‘riz, grains, carry' which stand for rice, beans (or lentils), the carry being the main dish itself. In time of low money and not far away in the past many Creole only had rice and brèdes as meal and this is still the case for most of the inhabitants of nearby Madagascar...
As stated, brédes is a generic name and covers a vast array of different plants belonging to various botanical families, we will mention some and have a closer look at a few of them. Some are rather common and eaten by many while some are seldom seen on market places and used only by connoisseurs. They are sold on every street market and most fruits and vegetable retailers and even in supermarkets, some are grown in the house garden while others can be picked in the wild. As this is local food they obviously get Creole names and thus you will have a choice between; brèdes chouchou, brèdes morelle, brèdes songes, brèdes mafane, brèdes médaille, brèdes pariétaire, brèdes choux de Chine, brèdes lastron, brèdes citrouille, brèdes bleues, brèdes patate, brèdes cresson, brèdes manioc and so on. To add some confusion they often have different names for the same plant depending on who you are dealing with or what part of the island you are in, thus brèdes mèdaille and brèdes mourongue (Moringa oleifera) are the same while brèdes morelle is also brèdes martin (Solanum nigrum). To put things simply they are cooked vegetables, the closest most common one being spinach in Europe and the USA. The difference is just in the way of cooking and the fact that many can be found in the wild as they indeed are weeds, we will therefore start with the most ‘weedy' one.
Solanum nigrum (black nightshade) is known in Europe and the U.S. as an invasive weed and thus often sprayed with weed-killer while it would be better to uproot it and cook it. As with all nightshades, it has a bad reputation which is not completely undeserved as the green fruits and leaves contain glycoalkaloids which are pretty poisonous. Those toxic compounds disappear when the plant is cooked and when the berries ripen and turn black, I remember a botanical stroll in France with naturalists who almost choked when they saw me picking those berries and eating them as the plant has such a reputation. It is nonetheless used as medicinal species in various parts of the world and leaves are scattered in babies' cribs to help them sleep in Hungary. On Reunion it is said that eating them as brèdes will induce sleep if taken in excess, they are called ‘brèdes morelles' as the vernacular name of the plant in French is ‘morelle noire'.
‘Brèdes chouchou' are made with the end shoots of a widely grown vegetable, Sechium edule, locally known as ‘chouchou' while it is called ‘christophine' in the French West Indies and known as chayote in English. It originates from Mexico and belongs to the Cucubirtaceae family like the watermelon or pumpkin. As it is a vine is produces very long shoots which cling to any available support with the aid of tendrils just like passionflowers do.
‘Brèdes songe' are the leaves and stems of young Colocasia esculenta harvested when they are still unrolled and sold rolled tightly like cigars. For those of you who speak French and know that ‘songe' means dream, do not think that those brèdes will induce any special dream, the name comes from the Malagasy tongue ‘saonjo'. This plant has spread on the island and can be found in most rivers or wet gullies.
‘Brèdes mafane' is a quite tricky one, if you eat it without any warning or explanation you may start thinking that something is wrong...Acmella oleracea belongs to the Asteraceae family and is the main ingredient of the national dish of Madagascar, the ‘romazava'. In Malagasy ‘mafana' means hot and though the plant will not heat you up like hot peppers do it has a very peculiar effect on the lips, tongue and palate. Coming from Brazil, it is also known as Para cress or toothache plant as it contains spilanthol which has analgesic effects and will provoke tickling in the mouth before feeling it numbing. The more flowers you put, the stronger the effect. And when eaten raw the effect is even more potent!
The ‘brèdes médaille' is not often seen on market although it comes from a very interesting plant. Moringa oleifera originates from Arabia and India and is gaining more and more fame as it is now proven that the crushed seeds will help reduce bacteria level and also flocculate impurities in water, therefore a much helpful thing in developing countries. It easily grows even on poor soils in dry areas. The flowers can be eaten as fritters or grilled and have a peanut flavour, the leaves as brèdes of course, the young fruits like green beans while once dry the seeds will be put to use as said before or pressed to release oil.
‘Brèdes manioc' consists of the young leaves of Manihot esculentum, a very common sight in all tropical places. People usually eat the fleshy roots as starch source but the leaves can be seen on street markets of Reunion. They can also be seen as pounded finely until they make a kind of paste with a bright green colour, base of a national recipe of Madagascar, the ‘ravitoto'.
I think we have eaten enough now, although brèdes are just greens they are always eaten at least with rice and most often as side dish with carry. And of course the ‘rougail' or hot sauce will always be at hand to help digestion. Bon appétit!
I have to thank the webmaster of http://www.ruedesboulets.com/ for allowing me the use of a couple of pictures for this article, make sure to visit the website, great photos there!