I am obsessive about my evening walk among the working fields behind my home in the outskirts of Vadodara. My favourite time is an hour before sundown, when the light is soft and mellow and the day’s heat intensifies the exotic fragrance of the hedgerows, shrubs, trees and fields. Besides disengaging me fully from the day, my evening walks bring unexpected encounters with creatures of the wild: nilgai, hares, wild boar, antelope, peacock/hens, mongoose, myriad birds and the occasional palm civet and slithering snake. And they have opened my eyes to the world of weeds.
Part of my childhood was spent on a working farm in Charotar, an agriculturally rich belt of central Gujarat. Our farm had an abundance of leafy weeds in the wheat fields and below the canopy of mango, chikoo and guava trees in the orchards. The hedgerows, too hid a treasure trove of leafy edibles, invisible to all but the most razor-sharp eyes. Learning to identify the edible wild weeds, shrubs and vines in those hedges and foraging for them on our weekly farm visits was always an exciting adventure, which has stayed me till this day.
A few weeks ago, while my cousin and I walked through the drumstick (Moringa oleifera) orchard, we were surrounded by a delicate fragrance of jasmine. We discovered that the sweet smell was emanating from the very tender shoots of the Moringa, which had been cut back in the monsoon to make the new shoots more accessible. What an olfactory delight! I just couldn’t resist plucking a handful or two of the shoots which were made into a lovely vegetable with chana dal the next day.
How often have we unknowingly trampled on an overgrowth of vegetation or what looks like weeds in our own garden, neighbourhood park or a nature trail? Or tugged at a stubborn branch or tendrils of vines of a hedge to clear the way? Pretty often, I bet! Chances are, there are edible weeds in your backyard, on pathways you walk every day, or in fields near you. Many of these plants can be foraged and added to your daily diet to increase your nutritional intake.
Among the common weeds that grow in my garden and around my home is Aakdo Bokado, a leaf that makes wonderful pakodas. They puff up like a balloon the minute you release them into hot oil in a light batter of gram flour with red chilli powder, turmeric, salt and a dash of rice flour for crispness. Luni bhaji (purslane), with its tiny, succulent leaves, is often found in moist garden beds, flower pots, lawns, and shady areas, where it lies close to the ground. This humble garden weed is a nutritional powerhouse: It’s said to contain more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable, and can be a great addition to a salad or stir-fry, or used to thicken soups. It has a crisp texture, and the leaves and stems can be eaten raw or cooked to add a peppery flavor to any dish.
Varsha Dori (Leptadenia reticulata), Jivanti in Sanskrit, grows among hedges in the monsoon and the flowers are considered a rare delicacy in Gujarat. Then there’s Satodo (horse purslane), Arni (Clerodendrum phlomidis), Pui (Malabar spinach), a climber with succulent red twining stems that’s a favourite with Bengalis, are a few more. Cheel or Bathua (Chenopodium album), as it is known in North India, is cultivated in some regions and considered a weed elsewhere. Also known as Lambs Quarters, it is an integral part of sarson da saag and extremely nutritious. Kubo (Leucas aspera) makes a delicious vegetable with lentils. Kanjaro (Digera muricata) or false amaranth, makes for a wonderful addition to a meal once it has been boiled to remove its inherent bitterness, and tempered in oil with garlic and finely chopped onions. There are so many more which we still need to discover.
The edible weeds that you find in your garden or area might be different to the ones I find in my part of the world so do go out there and take a walk on the wild side. Just be careful to identify them with a credible source if you’re not plant-savvy. Some plants are very toxic and can kill you. If in doubt, don’t use it!
Weeds? If you can’t beat them, eat them!
Nandita Amin is an architect, landscape architect, educationist, intrepid traveller, a bon viveur and also runs an animal shelter in Vadodara.