The Indian urban forager is discovering flavours of edible weeds

By Shilpa Nair AnandonJul. 13, 2021in Environment and Ecology

Editorial Comment: There seems to have been a slip in the sentence “Foraging includes getting fruits from roadsides and vacant plots where they would go waste.” What humans do not consume is not ‘wasted’ – it might, on the contrary, be more widely shared among birds, animals and insects!

Urban Indian foragers discover bursts of flavour in overlooked tangles of weeds, as wild fritters, cutlets and soups become a delicious side effect of lockdown

Shruti with participants on the Wild Food Walk in Chennai

Between sips of blue pea flower tea, Saritha OT, a teacher of environmental science, makes patties out of sessile joyweed foraged from near her house in Hyderabad’s Jubilee Hills.

Next, she grinds leaves of creeping sorrel from her garden into a chutney. Having recently learned that the weed she pulled out from her potted plants was wandering Jew (Commensalis benghalensis), an edible green, she has been surfing the net looking for suitable recipes. Fortunately, she has a community to lean on: Saritha is part of a growing group of urban Indian foragers who use wild edibles in their food.

Creeping sorrel chutney by Saritha OT

Foraging is gathering ‘food’ — edible weeds, fruits and flowers — that grows in the wild (not uncultivated). Traditionally associated with rural and tribal communities, foraging is also practised in urban and semi-urban pockets. Edible weeds are consumed across the country, and they vary due to geographical and climatic variations. Lately, foraging has picked up in cities, triggered by lockdown, when people had more time at hand to explore their surroundings and experiment in the kitchen.

Saritha got interested in the hobby two years ago when she attended a lunch, Festival of Uncultivated Foods, hosted by the Deccan Development Society, Hyderabad. “Edible weeds were used in cutlet, vada, chutney and even rotis. Each has a distinct taste — purslane is tangy, gale of wind is bitter,” she says. She was impressed by the uses plants such as devil’s horsewhip, kidney leaf, spider wisp and jute mallow, as well as their nutritional content. “I learnt that farmers and locals depend on foraging during dry months when there isn’t much else,” she says.

Facilitating change

Shruti Tharayil (@forgottengreens on Instagram) conducts programmes to teach people more about how to recognise and cook edible wilds, to make fritters, soups, dal, stir fries, salads and more. “Foraging is not new. We have always done it; our mothers probably still pluck herbs and add them to the food. We have a lot of knowledge, but there is a gap between practice,” says Calicut-based Shruti, who calls herself a ‘facilitator for change’.

Her curiosity was piqued when she was working with a non-profit organisation in rural Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. She noticed rural women collecting greens to cook. The more she researched, the more she learnt and the results fascinated her. Shruti sees foraging as a means of connecting with the immediate ecosystem and staying connected to the land and soil; more importantly that it helps keep biodiversity alive.

Fritters made of foraged plants by Shruti Tharayil

India boasts a diverse range of these greens — mountain knot grass, creeping daisy (wedelia), wood sorrel, Indian pennywort, Peperomia pellucida, Bengal day flower, red hogweed, desert horse purslane, asthma weed, Indian nettle, and stinging nettle are some which figure on a very long list. “It is not that these have been forgotten or that only rural or tribal communities use these. Certain plants are recognised in urban pockets too. You see an empty plot — you will find many edible weeds there,” says Elizabeth S, a gardener from Bengaluru.

Foraging is not easy — it demands patience, time and skills of observation. Active communities of gardeners and farmers share information and recipes online, sustaining interest and guiding newcomers. Lockdown brought with it a lot of time and an increased interest in foraging. People began cooking with what was available in their compounds, typically familiar greens such as moringa leaves, kuppai keerai (Amaranthus viridis), and colocasia leaves.

“Confinement draws attention to what is nearby. People are thinking about how to self-sustain — this is a life skill,” says Elizabeth. She and foragers like her use ‘wild greens’ to supplement store-bought vegetables as these are not found in huge quantities. “Weeds are important, contrary to the conventional notion of gardening. They have a cycle and pattern, unlike perceptions of what a weed is,” she adds.

Kush Sethi from Delhi has been organising forage walks in Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens for the last four years (it was cancelled in 2020). The walks are organised in winter months from November to March.

Kush Sethi on a forage walk | Photo Credit: Alice Carfrae

“I don’t forage for myself; this is an educational walk programme. We do it in Lodhi Gardens as there is an interesting mix of plants,” says Kush. The walk ends with a multi-course meal at a pan-European restaurant, made with the plants foraged.

Kush leads foraging walks not more than five or six times a year. Working with gardeners, he forages from plant beds in the park. (“I tell them that I’ll pluck the weeds for them,” Kush jokes.) He also does commissioned work for travel companies organising ‘forage walks’. “They are selling aspects of the city that extend beyond its [Delhi’s] heritage,” he adds. The interest, he believes, has been consistent.

Urban foraging is not as dichotmous as it sounds. “Urban spaces have so much — empty plots or road dividers — where you can find edible weeds. These could be polluted which can be cleaned by washing with rock or table salt water or turmeric powder or tamarind infused water,” Shruti says.

Foraging is not only leaf-based, some like Elizabeth, get fruits such as jamun, tamarind, wild passion fruit, starfruit from roadsides and vacant plots where they would go waste.

Identifying these is crucial, the wrong plant could have disastrous results. Shruti is cautious and checks a few times with reference books, asking people and reading up online before sharing anything. Sethi refers to books. Cooler months (or post-monsoon) from October to January are the best time to forage, there is seasonal variation in the plants found. The summer months do not yield as much.

Farah Yameen, digital archivist from Delhi, started @thesaagarchive, an Instagram handle during lockdown on which she posts illustrations of edible weeds, with recipes, usually shared by other enthusiasts such as Shruti. Saag refers to greens, usually leafy vegetables. Some are well-known and others family recipes, recently a chana saag recipe came from Bihar.

She is careful about where she sources these greens from, avoiding spaces that could be toxic as some plants such as varieties of amaranth tend to absorb toxins from the soil. “People have found these edible plants in the most unexpected places — flower pots on terraces,” she says.

Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar, chef and co-founder Edible Archives (Goa) links foraging with first creating awareness. The edible herb she uses — gotu kola — as seasoning is plucked from the garden at the restaurant just before serving. “There is the perception that what we ‘buy’ is food has to change. For me it is related to conservation,” she says. It is a delicate balance, indiscriminate foraging might cause a shortage for people whose source of nourishment these plants might be.

First published by The Hindu on 27th Jan 2021.

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