UAE: What is 'malunggay' and why Filipinos are 'stealing' it from neighbours' gardens

After Kris Fade's video goes viral, expats in Dubai explain their side of the story — and why 'malunggay' is worth the trouble


Kirstin Bernabe

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Photos: Instagram / Supplied
Photos: Instagram / Supplied

Published: Tue 21 Nov 2023, 7:13 PM

Last updated: Thu 23 Nov 2023, 7:38 AM

Every Filipino would relate to how Kris Fade’s longtime nanny, Ginia, casually walked home with a bunch of malunggay leaves 'stolen' from their neighbour’s garden.

“I'd like to apologise to our neighbours," the famous radio DJ wrote in the caption of the hilarious video that had gone viral with nearly 30,000 hearts and a comments section flooded with Filipinos showing some love.

In the clip, Ginia admitted she just picked the branches of malunggay from another garden. "You were stealing from the neighbour?" Kris asks. "Yeah, in front of their camera," the Filipino nanny says, laughing.

Ginia won't be alone, for sure — and Filipino expats in the UAE would be ready to rally behind her.

"It was funny! But totally understandable. If I were to see malunggay leaves hanging from a garden on the street, I would pick some, too," said Dubai resident Sheryl Escasinas.

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Expat Chelly Antipuesto proudly said that she, too, was able to pick some malunggay from a neighbour at Damac Hills 2.

"I asked for permission, though. What surprised me was that our neighbour didn't know this plant could be eaten. She said she got the plant from a Filipina friend, not knowing what it was. I explained how nutritious it was and I was able to convince her to eat it, too," Antipuesto told Khaleej Times.

So, what is it?

Malunggay is no exotic plant. Some Indians know it as murungakkai, shojne or by its more popular international name 'moringa'. This vegetable is, in fact, a key ingredient in many Indian dishes.

Head to a UAE supermarket and you’ll find it labelled “drumstick leaves”, sold for less than Dh5 per bunch.

But for a kabayan, having to buy it from a shop feels a little different. As a Filipino, I don’t remember ever buying malunggay from grocery stores back home. It’s that plant someone in the neighbourhood would always have — and always willing to share.

So, here in the UAE, Pinoys are always on the lookout for drumstick trees.

Lynne, another Filipino nanny who lives in Al Ghadeer, grew the plant herself and then lost it when they moved houses. But — like Ginia and Chelly — she has always found a way to bring home some for free.

"She would go back to our previous house to pick some moringa leaves. Initially, the new tenants were suspicious but Lynne argued that she planted and took care of the tree herself so she should be able to get some leaves," said her employer Sahany, who used to wonder why Lynne had always insisted on getting it for free when it didn't really cost much. Now, she understood better.

How Filipinos use this superfood

These small, teardrop-shaped leaves are packed with nutrition: Studies have shown moringa could provide "seven times more vitamin C than oranges; 10 times more vitamin A than carrots; 17 times more calcium than milk; nine times more protein than yoghurt; 15 times more potassium than bananas; and 25 times more iron than spinach".

Filipinos grew up knowing this. And whenever a breastfeeding mum struggles with milk supply, malunggay is on top of everyone's minds, including doctors'.

Dubai-based Filipino mum Kathrina Santos said she would buy malunggay capsules usually after giving birth.

"But now that my children are no longer babies, we eat malunggay as part of our dishes every week," Kathrina said.

Another expat, Noime, uses the superfood as an ingredient to a Filipino-favourite dish called munggo guisado (mung bean soup).

"I would regularly buy malunggay from stores. But that's only because my own tree is still too small," she said.

Here's a photo Noime shared:

In the Philippines, malunggay is everywhere — from soups, like the staple chicken soup called tinola, to bread. It also comes in juice bottles and powdered versions.

In fact, Laoag, a city in the northern province of the country, has come up with a festival that showcases all the food products that can be created with malunggay.

Among those presented in the third edition earlier this year were creamy malunggay pesto, malunggay crepe, malunggay pizza, malunggay ice cream, sushi rolls, cookies, miki and polvoron.

Locals in the city — from students to families — have also taken the lead in growing this superfood at school gardens, backyards, roadsides, and vacant lots, according to the government-run Philippine News Agency.

As Filipino digital content creator Sam Mangubat says in the comment section of Kris Fade's viral Instagram post — "That's how healthy it is!! Worth stealing."


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