In a globalised world, what happens anywhere, happens everywhere.
Trade facilitates economic forces to carry outward like ripples in a pond. Global warming, climate change, even war, affects us no matter how far removed or insulated we like to believe we are. The war in Syria, for instance, has a culinary casualty that affects every person who is interested in, and loves, food: the beloved heirloom chilli, the Aleppo Pepper, is becoming harder to find in spice stores as wholesalers can no longer buy it; they are noticeably disappearing from restaurants and kitchen shelves.
But in the wake of so much death and destruction, isn’t the loss of a spice negligible? The Syrians, for whom tradition and cuisine are a source of pride, would argue that the Aleppo Pepper isn’t just a flavour, it is a piece of their history.
Closer home, when large tracts of land are cleared, species of orchid, fern, wild greens and berries are lost. Wild foods (as opposed to cultivated foods) are the source of concentrated nutrients (or micro-nutrients) that can be key in times when establishing food security is critical. When wild foods disappear, we also lose the knowledge of these foods that have been gathered over generations, one that connects a people with their land.
Kaveri Ponnapa, author of The Vanishing Kodavas, says foraging was a way of life long before Noma made it chic again. “The world is now embracing trends in global cuisine like local, seasonal and sustainable, but these are not new to India. Foraging has sadly gone out of fashion now, and people buy their vegetables from a market. Earlier, we’d grow our own in kitchen gardens, and supplement them with what was grown around the estate. Wild mushrooms and kake thoppu, a wild spinach full of micro-nutrients, would tide us over the rainy months.”
When Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food movement, he did it to save traditional cuisines, indigenous ingredients and techniques, by curbing the loss of local fruits and vegetables, creating seed banks and rescuing species from vanishing. When the news carries dismal stories of crop failures in villages that have continuously been farmed for 8,000 years, being a Slow Food champion in your own home is a baby step to bigger ideals like bio-safety, and preserving nutrition-rich species, whether it’s the sweet naattu manga, the steadfast jackfruit, or the Kodampuli tree, the source of the Coorg kachampuli ‘vinegar’.
We spoke to a few home-cooks about local wild greens they use in day-to-day cooking, that (depending on which part of the country you are in) you can incorporate into your daily menu too. Look for them at your local market, maybe in an organic store, or like Archana Pidathala, make friends with the sabzi walla who will save you a bunch whenever they are in season.
In Kerala, the drumstick (better known now as the superfood moringa), is a part of everyday cuisine, appearing in the ubiquitous sambar or avial, and on more festive occasions, a prawn and drumstick curry. On a rainy day, you can even make a comforting drumstick stew with coconut milk, onion and green chilli. The tender leaves are used to make thorans in a coconut oil stir-fry, and the flower is cooked in a similar way.
Ayesha Oommen, growing up a Syrian Christian home in Kerala, recalls that traditionally, the flowers are never plucked, instead the tree is gently shaken, and a sheet spread beneath the trees collects the leaves. “It is so tender that it cannot be washed thoroughly, so the young leaves are collected without falling to the earth.”
The lure of the moringa is not new. Fidel Castro was interested in moringa and sent people to Kerala to study its cultivation as a solution to fighting nutrient deficiency. A single serving of fresh leaves has more vitamin C than seven oranges. Rich in micronutrients, the drought-resistant moringa also adapts easily to local climatic conditions.
If you’ve never used drumstick before, the prawn and drumstick curry is a great way to familiarise yourself with the acquired taste of moringa. The curry is mild, creamy and fragrant, and although it is usually eaten at lunch, pairs exceptionally well with puttu or sannas, so why not get your dose of Vitamin D first thing in the morning? Recipe here.
Gongura, the leafy greens synonymous with Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, is a natural souring agent. The red-stalked variety is especially sour, so unless you want your food very tangy, it is balanced with the green-stalked variant. Gongura is added to meat curries like mutton to lend its signature tanginess, or boiled into a paste that is fried in oil – a spicy condiment called thokku, relished in equal measure by vegetarians and meat eaters. Gongura grows in the wild, and like the moringa, is drought-resistant and grows in hardy soil and water conditions, without needing much care.
Archana Pidathala, in the course of research for her book on Andhra cuisine, Five Morsels of Love, encountered a water spinach called anne soppu that grows wild, like a weed in the paddy fields, and is eaten with ridge gourd and broad beans. In Karnataka, the same leaves are made into a delicious chutney with urad dal, balanced in the typical Kannadiga sweet-sour-spicy way, with red chilli, tamarind and jaggery.
Nothing makes for a more filling lunch that a plate of steaming rice and dal, and the Andhra version that uses gongura, or Roselle, adds texture and tanginess, breaking the monotony of lentils. Recipe here.
In a community obsessed with snacking, the patra holds pride of place in the Gujarti farsan, their repertoire of teatime snacks. This any-time snack is made with steamed colocasia leaves, spread with a sweet-and-sour besan paste, then rolled and cut into cross-sections that look like pretty pinwheels.
The Fiddlehead Fern of Uttarakhand, a visually striking wild green that curls inward like the cross-section of a croissant, remains widely foraged. It is prepared as a sabzi when available fresh, but outside Uttarakhand, the dried leaves are rehydrated and used as stuffing in momos, and greens in omelettes.
Although it can look intimidating, the patra is worth trying your hand at, and makes for a special tea time treat. Recipe here.
Kashmir’s most famous cultural export (second only to the wazwan) is haaq, a flavourful seasonal green that is staple to every meal. Kavi Bhansali, a filmmaker who travels extensively and cooks whenever he has the chance, says no meal is complete without some variation of haaq on the table. Cloves of garlic and red chilli balance the strong flavours of this green, blanched lightly to retain its crunch, and tempered in oil. For dinner, a generous serving of haaq with rotis or rice, makes for a quick, healthy and light dinner. Recipe here.
Basella, or the Climbing Malabar Spinach, is dear to most kitchens in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and coastal Karnataka. Full of protein and antioxidants, this tropical leafy green is a backyard herb with broad, glossy heart-shaped leaves. For a dinner party or birthday, when you want to cook up something that is guaranteed to surprise and delight, look up the Mangalorean recipe for Basella, and improvise with prawns or clams, which is a favourite combination on the coast. Recipe here. This is a basic recipe that you can riff on. And when you do, don’t forget to send us invite to dinner.
This article first appeared on The Goya Journal, a publication focused on culinary storytelling.