Wild edibles have been part of indigenous community diets for centuries. Now chefs, scholars and farmer collectives are trying to document the medicinal and nutritional value of these wild foods
The Instagram page of The Locavore—an initiative started this year by Mumbai-based chef Thomas Zacharias to champion regional food through storytelling, recipes and events—is turning out to be a treasure trove of information on wild foods. Take the post on pendhra, the divine jasmine, and its many regional avatars, pindara, tela korda, bana bengena, peru-n-karai, kare and adavi manga. Found in parts of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and Thailand, this indigenous wild vegetable has firm, astringent and bitter flesh, and a cluster of seeds that need to be removed before it is eaten.
Local recipes suggest it can be made into a pickle, added to a khichdi or curry. The wonder food helps fight stomach cramps, dysentery and diarrhoea. Such details—often little-known—are being shared as part of The Locavore’s Wild Food Project. Not just that, chefs, nutritionists and recipe testers are working on contemporary culinary interpretations of such ingredients. For instance, Shreya Valecha, a designer-recipe tester, has created roasted pendhra chips and cutlet for an open sandwich, while chef Jyoti Vishnani, who works with a cloud kitchen in Mumbai, has created a spicy pickle.
Forgotten Greens, another social media page, is dedicated to exploring wild edible greens growing in the nooks and crannies of streets and gardens. Started in 2018 by former development professional and researcher Shruti Tharayil, the page recently added a post on senna tora, or stinking cassia, a monsoon green that grows easily on roadsides and common lands. Kerala-based Tharayil has written about her experience of coming across this plant. In Udaipur, the Adivasi communities would call know it as fufadia.
According to community elders, stinking cassia should be consumed only during the monsoon; it’s difficult to digest in any other season. High in calcium and iron, this wild green builds immunity. While the raw seed pods can be steamed and eaten, the dried seeds can be toasted and used as an alternative to coffee.
Over the past two-three years, there has been a surge of interest in wild vegetables and their nutritional and medicinal qualities among people from different disciplines—artists, chefs, scholars, farmer collectives. Efforts are being made at a variety of levels, and through diverse initiatives, to document the way these are used, and when. This becomes particularly relevant at a time when the younger generation of Adivasis too seems to be moving away from traditional foraging practices, lured by the packaged and processed food diet common in urban areas.
The initiatives aim to help such youths regain a sense of pride in the produce that grows around them. The second aim, especially by chef-led ventures such as The Locavore, is to follow practices of conscious foraging—that is, only use wild foods that grow in abundance. There is an unwritten pact that indigenous communities will have first right to any produce. So, teams of chefs and recipe testers only work with small quantities. Farm and community projects showcasing wild edibles too guard against over-harvesting.
Links to indigenous wisdom
Wild foods, now under threat, are deemed critical to the world’s food security and nutritional needs. In 2019, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization launched State Of The World’s Biodiversity For Food And Agriculture, its first global report on the biodiversity that underpins our food systems. According to it, information from the 91 reporting countries revealed that wild food species and many species that contribute to ecosystem services—vital to food and agriculture—are disappearing rapidly.
“For example, countries report that 24 per cent of nearly 4,000 wild food species are decreasing in abundance. But the proportion of wild foods in decline is likely to be even greater as the state of more than half of the reported wild food species is unknown,” it noted. The reasons for loss are many: changes in land-water use and management, pollution, over-exploitation, over-harvesting, climate change and urbanisation.
India is no exception. In Sikkim and the Darjeeling Himalaya, for instance, the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment’s (Atree’s) regional office for Eastern Himalaya has documented 192 species of wild edibles that were used as food, consumed as medicines, and had multiple other uses (religious, cultural, etc.). Its recent surveys show the use of wild edibles is limited, and declining further as diets change to include more processed foods, with increasing reliance on distant markets for food, agriculture intensification and growth of high-value crops.
“Our survey shows that the youth is exposed to ready-to-eat foods and their taste has been homogenised. They are turning away from the local wisdom of eating such seasonal wild edibles,” says Sarala Khaling, head of the regional office, who has been working with the Lepcha community in Dzongu, north Sikkim, and Nepali community in Darjeeling.
According to a 2019 report, Making Room For Wild Foods In Forest Conservation, by the environment news website Mongabay, of the almost 6,000 documented plant species used by humans, rice, maize and wheat make up for 50% of the global calorie intake from plants; this has led to micronutrient deficiencies. “Even though wild forest food makes up less than 1 per cent of global caloric intake, they provide essential micronutrients to hundreds of millions of people,” it noted.
The covid-19 pandemic, however, seems to have forced a rethink. Khaling says the lockdowns and restrictions impacted supply chains, especially to the hills and remote locations, forcing people to fall back on local produce, including that easily found in backyards. This will become even more crucial as natural calamities increase in frequency and intensity. What’s more, these ingredients have added to the income of communities that forage for mushrooms, stinging nettle, herbs, leafy greens, cane shoots and tubers.
Chef on a mission
This is where documentation and research initiatives such as The Locavore and its Wild Food Project become significant. “The food system is so exhaustive and there are so many different parts to it. We are picking ideas that resonate with it,” says Zacharias. During his ongoing Chef On The Road series on Instagram—in which he posts about local foods, producers and dishes from destinations around the country—he has been writing about the wild edibles eaten by indigenous communities in Uttarakhand, Kerala, Maharashtra and Goa.
It was these journeys that drove home the disconnect between urban living and indigenous wisdom. “City dwellers are oblivious to edible food that grows a few kilometres away. So when I started The Locavore, I was sure I wanted to include wild foods as a part of it,” he says. In the first phase of the project, starting June, the team has documented 25-30 wild vegetables—essentially monsoon vegetables in Maharashtra’s Palghar district—that most people in Mumbai don’t know about. “This is connected to a larger movement of awareness around the source of our food and how the communities growing it live,” adds Zacharias.
The objectives of the Wild Food Project are manifold, the foremost being to archive and document traditional knowledge on the edibles. This is going to take the form of a zine—translated into Marathi—for Adivasis and others. The team also wants to understand the impact of wild foods on the nutrition of Adivasis, as well as the impact of environmental changes and land use on this diversity. The idea is not just to create awareness among people but also add value to the lives of the community. Trying to instil pride in the younger generation through the zine and Locavore’s first Wild Food Festival—to be held in Mumbai on 28 August in collaboration with OOO Farms, a farmer-producer venture in Maharashtra and parts of Gujarat that is focused on equal rights for growers and sustainable practices—is one way. A wild food walk is also planned in Mumbai around Independence Day.
Like Khaling, Zacharias too has noticed that young people are turning away from wild foods. “They find the way urban India eats more aspirational,” he says. He recollects a visit to Palghar four years ago, when food collected from the forest was cooked by members of the tribal community with just some salt, chilli and garlic, letting the flavours of the produce shine. Two years ago, when he returned to the same village, Zacharias found turmeric and chilli powders being added. “Two months back, I realised that packaged masalas were being added to the food. I am not saying that we should stop them from using these but they need to retain the traditional wisdom of using these wild edibles for energy, medicine. There is a science to it—when to eat, at which point of the monsoon to eat,” he says. Take shevla bhaji (dragon stalk yam). On its own, it’s poisonous. But when boiled with ingredients such as a leafy green, it’s not only fit for consumption but helps restore gut bacteria and boost immunity.
Takshama Pandit, who heads sourcing and partnerships at The Locavore, says she and the team are careful that only those wild edibles which grow in abundance are spoken about publicly. “The ones that are scarcer should first be reserved for the community’s own nutritional and medicinal needs and not be brought into the mainstream food pattern. Foraging should follow a cautionary approach and we are very conscious of it,” says Pandit.
This is why the team does not make the names of communities and their locations public. For it found that when something turns into a trend, people start approaching the communities in big numbers and seeking large quantities of their produce. “We have seen very heavy rains in the past few weeks, which has made it very difficult for the community to procure food from the market. They are also working to protect what they grow. In such a scenario, they are dependent on what grows around them,” Pandit adds. In case of ailments too, they depend mostly on traditional knowledge of wild foods as medicine.
The Wild Food Project is following an interdisciplinary approach, with around 20 recipe testers, chefs, designers, illustrators and nutritionists working together. For the festival in August, chefs such as Jyoti Vishnani are creating flavour profiles of 25-30 ingredients from Palghar. “We went on a wild food trip to Palghar in June. That was an enlightening moment for me. I came across takla, which looks like methi (fenugreek) but has a different flavour note. I am working with pendhra and umber, which is fig-like. This has been a very interesting experience as a chef, and gives us ideas of how to treat our regular veggies with respect,” says Vishnani.
The rise of food forests
The world of wild foods is interconnected, with one initiative linked to the other. For instance, The Locavore is collaborating with OOO Farms, which has its roots in avid trekker Shailesh Awate’s many trips to the Sahyadris. Some 20 years ago, the hills were heavily forested; now the jungles have been cleared for farmland, or, worse, for resorts. “I would always visit the tribal homes during my treks and the food they served would be bursting with flavours and aromas. In the last seven years, those unique flavours started disappearing,” he says.
Awate started asking them to harvest small quantities of some wild edibles for him, promising to pay a good sum. “That’s how OOO Farms started (around 2018). A lot of people in the region had lost indigenous seeds. We travelled 40,000km to collect seeds. What began with one village and 10 farmers has now expanded to 63 villages,” says Awate, who gave up partnership in a software firm to focus solely on OOO Farms.
During trips to the villages, he and one of the co-founders, Shikha Kansagara, had come across all kinds of wild vegetables. Five years ago, they were invited as chief guests to a village function in Palghar, where they were welcomed with a bouquet of 100 wildflowers, all of them edible. At the community hall, he recalls, “one by one, the villagers kept coming in with plates of food and placing them in a Fibonacci-like pattern. There must have been 80 such plates.” Awate realised each dish featured a different wild vegetable. After the meal, the village head, clearly conscious of the need for conservation, asked every resident where they had foraged the ingredients from—the answers were near the river bed, on the hill, under a tree. The head then asked if this particular ingredient was growing in abundance, just enough, or hard to find. He made a note of it all.
Awate, inspired by this mindful documentation, started working with eight communities. Today, they have identified 167 wild edibles and are working on the scientific and English names of these. Five years ago, OOO Farms held a wild food festival in Mumbai, showcasing the produce and cooking dishes from the edibles that grow in abundance. They expected only those who used to visit farmers’ markets regularly. But 150 people responded to the WhatsApp post and 450 people eventually turned up. “We had only cooked for 150 but people were extremely cooperative. They were more in awe of the 160 wild veggies on display,” he says. Awate got repeated requests from restaurants and chefs for access to the wild edibles but didn’t give in. “This produce doesn’t belong to us. The indigenous communities have the first right to it,” he says.
Among all the chefs, however, only Zacharias seemed to identify with this vision. He was interested more in documenting traditional knowledge than in bringing this produce into the mainstream supply chain. “He did a wild food festival at The Bombay Canteen, keeping in mind the lines that shouldn’t be crossed,” says Awate.
In the village of Sakurli in Shahapur, Maharashtra, lies Mohraan Farms, which is a farm-stay and also conducts regular tastings and walks themed on wild foods. This food forest of sorts is run by Sameer Savlaram Adhikari, his twin Sachin, and family. The land was purchased by his father—then a teacher in Mumbai—around 40 years ago; he planted many fruit trees. The family would turn to the farm to meet their need for healthy food. “We were based in Mumbai and would come to the farm once a week, 2016 onwards, to learn farming and get produce from the forest, spread across seven acres,” says Adhikari. In 2020, the family moved to the farm and began interacting closely with the villagers and tribal communities like the Thakar about forest food that was growing naturally, without human intervention.
“There is a misconception that wild edibles grow only during the monsoon. In fact, different wild edible fruits, leaves, flowers, tubers are available round the year. We eat at least one wild vegetable in every meal all year round. There are 80-90 wild vegetables in the food forest here, apart from dozens of perennials like tree spinach, water spinach, Malabar spinach. There are 28 types of fruits as well, like karonda (Carissa carandas),” says Adhikari, who is experimenting with pickling and fermenting techniques using traditional ingredients. It is this produce from the natural food forest that is cooked and showcased to visitors at the farm-stay.
In the Sahyadri foothills lies Vanvadi, a collectively regenerated bio-diverse forest. Spread across 65 acres of undulated land—filled with water bodies and seasonal streams—it is located around 10km from Neral station, between Mumbai and Pune. Started in 1994 by over two dozen people in a clear-felled area to restore the local biodiversity, it has over 120 traditionally useful plant species, 50 forest food species and 80,000 trees. The local communities and Vanvadi founders, such as Bharat Mansata, have been conducting food foraging walks every July for a decade. They have also organised workshops on forest foods of the Konkan such as mahua, kharbanda, jambul.
“Most of the understanding and knowledge has come from local Adivasis. At this time of the year, you will find a lot of tubers in abundance. There is a bitter one called kadu kand, which is more commonly consumed during periods of food scarcity. It is boiled, sliced, smeared with wood ash, tied in a cloth bundle and then kept overnight in a flowing stream. It then tastes very fresh, with all the bitterness and itchiness removed,” explains Mansata. Then there is the loth, a kind of wild yam, whose fresh greens leaves are used as a vegetable. It needs to be cooked with another forest plant (or with tamarind) to remove its itchiness.“This is the food people fall back on when the agricultural crop fails,” he adds.
Wild greens on Instagram
If you want to know more about the wild greens of mainland India, visit the page of Forgotten Greens. Tharayil has been working with not-for-profit organisations in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for seven years. Her work required visits to tribal areas, Dalit wadas and pastoral communities. There she saw plants, usually considered poisonous weeds, being eaten. In 2015, she came across a festival in Andhra Pradesh dedicated to uncultivated greens, where the community would come together to collect tender tamarind leaves. “That was an ‘unlearning’ for me. I began to localise my food. One of the main quests was to find out more about uncultivated greens. I would research, write, make a small herbarium, and also cook with them,” she says.
She started Forgotten Greens as a Facebook page for like-minded people who wanted to know more about such produce. The internet was filled with generic information about the plants—while the searches would state the plant was edible, information such as which part to eat in which season was missing. Tharayil was very conscious about sharing information only about the greens she had consumed. Forgotten Greens expanded to include an Instagram account in 2019-20. That caught people’s attention.
Until she moved to Kerala, she was unaware of what grew in her backyard. “I hadn’t grown up in Kerala. My family had migrated to Maharashtra. It is through food that I am now trying to understand my roots. This includes speaking to the older women in the family, visiting indigenous and rural communities,” she says. So, Tharayil has learnt about the Karkidaka Masam, observed in Kerala in July-August, when locals forage for the leaves of 10 medicinal plants to make a dish called pathila thoran. The dish, as she wrote in a recent piece for the Goya Journal, helps build immunity during the bleak, rain-drenched months.
In the course of research, she has found out more about purslane, which has a sour-tangy flavour and cools the system. Then there is false amaranth, which is extremely difficult to find in the moist climate of Kerala but grows abundantly in the dry landscape of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. One of her favourites is the butterfly pea, which has edible flowers, and the balloon vine, a power-packed medicinal plant—the leaves help cure body and joint pains, and, when applied to the hair, take care of dandruff.
“Foraging has become so hip in the West (with chefs like Rene Redzepi of NOMA having made it fashionable) but in India we have always had the practice of consuming wild edibles,” says Tharayil, who has created the Green Zine as a tangible extension of her digital content. It was inspired by a zine run by a friend in London called Florxl Zine. The second edition of the Green Zine should be out in August. “Last year, we did a rewilding food festival to celebrate three years of Forgotten Greens. We will be doing another one in September this year. I also hope to travel more to expand my knowledge base,” says Tharayil.
Look into the backyard
A unique project is Sarjapur Curries, started by artist Suresh Kumar G. in his village, Valagere Kallahalli , near Sarjapur, on the outskirts of Bengaluru. When he decided to live there and initially rented land, he realised the residents were slowly losing out on knowledge of seasonal and uncultivated veggies and greens. “The backyard gardens were reducing in size as apartments and gated complexes sprang up there. I was working on my kitchen garden at the time, and a lot of interesting ‘weeds’ started popping up. I got curious and got in touch with relatives on how to use these,” says Suresh. He also reached out to local women’s self-help groups such as Janani Abhivruddhi Swasahaya Sangha, motivating them to let such edible uncultivated greens grow in small spaces. Today, he and the women farmers grow various kinds of amaranth, sessile joyweed, nightshade, Malabar spinach, Turkey berries, sword beans and many varieties of ladyfinger, using these for their own needs.
“I was invited to the Bengaluru Sustainability Forum for a seminar and later offered a fellowship to work on urban sustainability. I suggested Sarjapur Curries as a project not just to create awareness about wild edibles, renew kitchen gardens in the area but also to document recipes, especially those by my mother, who passed away some years back,” he explains.
Of folktales and songs
In Uttarakhand, Pooja Pangtey, who had earlier co-founded the travelling pop-up Meraki with Teiskhem Lynrah to highlight the biodiversity and culinary traditions of the hills, is working on another project. Though Meraki has been on a hiatus since the start of the pandemic, Pangtey, who is from Munsiyari, Uttarakhand, is documenting wild edibles and indigenous knowledge from the state and looking at it all from the prism of fermentation and preservation. “In Uttarakhand, both in the Kumaon and Garhwal region, a lot of folk songs celebrate seasonal food. For instance, in the most famous one, Bedu Paako Baro Maasa, a father is telling his son about seasonality. Bedu is a wild fig varietal which ripens throughout the year. The song also mentions kafal, a red wild berry that ripens in the month of Chaitra,” says Pangtey, who is now based in Karjat, Maharashtra.
The other wild edible she remembers from childhood is the bichhu ghaas, or stinging nettle, which has considerable medicinal benefits. It is either put on fire or boiled to neutralise the sting and then made into a saag. Then there is the hisalu, or Himalayan golden raspberry, which used to grow at her grandparents’ home, at a higher altitude in Uttarakhand. A black variant of the hisalu can also be found. “Another one is kilmora, a sour local berry, purplish in colour. Both hisalu and kilmora are favourites with schoolchildren, who pick them off the bush,” she says.
Today, the impact of climate change is clearly visible on these wild edibles as they shift to higher altitudes and grow earlier than usual. She is now working a lot with perilla, or bhangjeera, fiddlehead ferns and jarag, a leaf that tastes wonderful as a tempura. “Usually, you find chefs and cooks from other places coming to Uttarakhand to find out more about indigenous practices. But I am seeing less people talking about their own produce. I want to offer that first-hand narrative,” she says.
The Wild Wild East
Just like the Western Ghats and Uttarakhand, the landscape of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Nagaland too abounds in wild edibles.
Earlier this year, an Outlook article, titled Enjoy A Feast In The Forest, by Sanjiv Valsan refers to the foraging practices of the Idu Mishmi tribe from Dibang valley. “During Reh, their most important ritual-festival, a deliciously aromatic wild leaf called ahona is slow-cooked with rough cornmeal and served at the ritual, which, as a rule, cannot be performed without serving ahona. This is meant to be an expression of respect for habitats where such wild foods grow. It comes as no surprise that the Idu Mishmis are well- nourished, have strong family bonds, and laugh easily. Famines are unheard of in these parts,” writes Valsan.
In Nagaland, chef Joel Basumatari, founder of the Slow Food Community Nagaland for biodiversity and heritage preservation, is working on a book about indigenous produce. “We don’t know any scientific names. I am trying to document edible plants used on a day-to-day basis, and whatever information I can find about them, such as medicinal usage,” he says. Take, for instance, the bitter tomato, or nakati, which is known as khamen akhaba in Manipuri and samtawk in Mizoram. The leaves are eaten as a vegetable and the roots and fruits are used as sedatives, to cure colic and blood pressure. “Then there is zanthozylum, known as mechenga in our language. In Sikkim, it is called timur. It is a perennial herb and used as deworming medicine by Naga tribes. Once we know the scientific names, it becomes easier to compare practices around these wild greens across regions. If I don’t document these ingredients, the knowledge will be lost for posterity,” he says. There’s no time to lose.
Know Your Wild Edibles
Umber: It grows abundantly for eight months and has the potential to become a superfood. It is flavourful and sweet when ripe and you may find tiny insects in the flesh. These insects are edible, a good source of protein, but some consumers choose to remove them.
Mahua flower: The dried, brown small flowers, like raisins, are abundantly available, with fresh flowers falling in April-May. The dried flowers are available year-round. They can replace jaggery in nutritional bars.
Pendhra: The fruit looks like a large lemon, with a smooth, shiny green peel and white, firm flesh. At the centre is a cluster of seeds that need to be removed before consumption. The flavour veers towards the bland side, with a hint of bitterness. The season starts from June-end and goes on till Ganesh Chaturthi. It is great for a sabzi and pickle, not eaten raw. Traditionally, it is first boiled in water and then cooked with onion, garlic, turmeric, green chillies and salt.
—Courtesy Shreya Valecha of the Wild Food Project, The Locavore
Cook with wild greens in your kitchen
Courtesy Suresh Kumar G of Sarjapur Curries
A traditional saaru (a soup), made with a stock of vegetables and greens and cooked with masala. The left-over vegetables and greens are then used to make palya that is topped with some tadka (tampering).
Mixed wild greens (3 to four cups): Anne soppu (gurugakku), senchelaku (false amaranthus), kanyaaku (Horse purslane), mantakali / kasaakku, doggalakku (wild amaranthus), pumpkin shoots, kirunalli nelabasle (Ceylon spinach), punarnava, sweet potato shoots, uttarani, muldamare, yanigmuld akku, eerban aaku
Half cup of halsande (cowpeas) or any other seasonal beans/legume
For masala: 1 onion, five to six cloves of garlic, one small ball of tamarind, two sprigs of coriander leaves, five to six fresh chillies (green or red), ⅓ cup shredded coconut, two springs curry leaves, turmeric powder, a pinch of salt.
In a deep pot or a pressure cooker, add the halsande seeds. Tender pods can also be added here. Wash and add the wild green mix as the second layer. Pour in enough water to cover all the ingredients. Season with salt as per taste. Cook till all the beans are well done. Once cooled, separate the liquid by straining it. This liquid will be used to make the bas saaru and the solid portion, the palya. Take all the ingredients mentioned in the masala section, a handful of the boiled halsande, and finely grind them into a smooth paste. In a deep pot, drizzle and cook the ground masala paste. Add the stock to this. Bring it to a boil, check salt and spice levels, turn off the heat. Bas saaru is ready.
First Published by Mint Lounge on 30 July 2022