In rural Punjab, makhana or fox-nut seed (thingzang in Manipur), when popped like popcorn and flavoured with chilli and salt, makes a winter snack. In Tamil Nadu, come summer, short shrubs by the side of the road sprout a red bitter berry called shundakai, used in sambhar. At the foothills of Darjeeling, in the bazaars of New Jalpaiguri, vegetable farmers converge for the weekly market. Among the potatoes, cauliflowers and carrots, staples across the country, are the lesser-known greens: cephalandra, known locally as kundru ki bail, water lily and Indian pandan. Weeds such as gumma and water spinach alongside leaves of chickpea, ash gourd and pumpkin. These are consumed here as a part of the daily diet.
The propensity towards heritage vegetables is huge in Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America, and comparatively far less in India, although small efforts are beginning to show results across the country, says Warwick Easdown, director of The Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (AVRDC) of The World Vegetable Center’s South Asia region, headquartered at The International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat) in Hyderabad. He says: “While we do not yet have precise statistics of the number of vegetables that are near extinction, India continues to be a huge source of untapped vegetables. Our work in rural areas of East Africa has shown us that half the vitamin A and a quarter of the iron content local communities get comes from indigenous vegetables, therefore it becomes important to understand what they contribute to local diets and how they can supplement deficient nutrition in current diets. These are often grown in abundance, are cheap and accessible.”
One of the biggest efforts to bring such neglected vegetables into the larger domain is the Sattvik Food Festival held annually at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, in the third week of December. It is run by Prof. Anil K. Gupta, executive vice-chairperson of the National Innovation Foundation, Ahmedabad, and president of the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (Sristi), begun in 2003 as an initiative to rediscover lost grains and vegetables.
“There are two or three things that happen simultaneously at the Sattvik Food Festival—we not only spread awareness, but it’s also the serious business of creating opportunities for villagers, it’s about licensing technologies and redesign, there are idea competitions, and providing an interface for clients that will really make a difference to these lost vegetables and crops,” says Prof. Gupta.
The festival, from 21-23 December this year, will have villagers travelling from Arunachal Pradesh, among other states, to serve up mahua flower ice cream, bamboo shoots and varieties of wild mushrooms.
The festival publishes a book of recipes every year. “The purpose is to create a market for such crops and provide space for varieties which were fast losing out due to the expansion in area of other crops, and also had nutritional advantage; to stimulate demand for organic agriculture; to make urban people realize the need for healthy food and life- styles,” Prof. Gupta says.
At the Birsa Agricultural University in Ranchi, Jharkhand, Rekha Sinha, chair of the home science department, studies vegetables that are lost when tribal communities are “developed”. According to her research, over 17,000 plant species are known in India, and a mere 200 species are domesticated, each with thousands of varieties. There is no count of those which have become extinct. For instance, Kerala alone has over 100 known genetic varieties of rice, 20 known varieties of tubers and 15 known varieties of pepper. It’s the same story in each state.
Sinha notes the distinctions between cultural and religious groups. For instance, the Paniya community in Kerala uses 50 kinds of fruit in its daily diet, whereas the state’s Hindu and Muslim communities use 10 varieties each. Documenting vegetables used in minor ways as flavouring agents or individually across communities is the source of the discovery process.
Inventive: Madav’s Kelphulachi Bhaji
Ooru is a new restaurant at the Kochin Food Mall in Kerala that launched in September. It serves tribal cuisine and is run by N. Vellan of Ambalavayal, a locally known “saviour of traditional diets” who was honoured at Gothrayanam 2012, a festival for tribal achievers, earlier this year. Vellan single-handedly revived foods such as mulamkutty puttu and nellika, native to the Kurumar tribe of Wayanad, and brought them into the mainstream when he tied up with two young engineers to start the restaurant. The restaurant not only employs tribals as cooks, but sources a bulk of its ingredients from the same gardens and foraging grounds the community uses. What was once picked for home consumption has now acquired commercial use. It has made a statement—that local food can be fashionable, and indigenous ingredients worth exploring.
Vandana Shiva, activist and founder of Navdanya, primarily a network of seed keepers and organic producers, also works towards the resurrection of lost vegetables. At the Bhoomi festival, held to commemorate Navdanya’s 20 years of existence on 2 October in Delhi, Navdanya served a dinner of pakodas made from flowers, leaves and plants—neem flowers, pumpkin flowers, karela leaves, shilpadi (mountain greens), stuffed spine gourd curry, bhangjeer (a type of Himalayan seed) ki chutney, nettle soup, brahmi-flavoured buttermilk, bamboo shoot pickle, a mixed tandoori platter of roots, an aami poor maadrak (mango ginger) and raw papaya salad, and a mooroonga leaves (leaves of the drumstick tree) pulao. “When traditional vegetables are lost, taste, health, nutrition, diversity, identity, freshness and balance are lost,” Shiva says. “The first change is the takeover of the seed supply. Big corporations can only deal with monocultures and uniformity. They colonize our cultures and make people feel that everything indigenous is inferior, everything ‘foreign’ is superior. It is the Macaulay effect on our food culture.”
Easdown says the perceived “aspirational value” of vegetables is a block. “We’ve found that in places like Africa, for instance, a weed at the side of the road has great iron content and taste and application. But the perception that it is a ‘poor man’s food’ stands in the way of its acceptance. That is the case with most lost vegetables in India—they have therefore been left behind.”
Chef Mandar Madav, sous chef at the Lotus Café of the JW Marriott hotel, Mumbai, agrees: “These vegetables are lost because you would not make it when guests come home. You don’t perceive them as things you would make on an occasion, or you can’t order them on a hotel menu.” Madav cites the example of shalgam or turnip. “Outside of Kashmir, you will not find shalgam in many bazaars and markets, whereas it grows abundantly across India and was once a native vegetable very much a part of all our cuisines. However, the same shalgam, because it adapts very well to a meaty flavour, is today a huge part of American and west European cuisines,” he says.
Madav is attempting to bring back some of the lost vegetables in dishes on the menu at the Lotus Café, originally started as a place that would cater to Jain tastes of no onion-garlic-roots vegetables. This pushed the chefs to seek newer vegetables, and they found themselves turning to old-school dishes. “Things like colocassia leaves—patra in Maharashtra—are no longer made at home because their veins have to be cleaned properly, else they cause itching; it’s tedious, so people skip it. Kathal ki sabzi—raw jackfruit—can cause an upset stomach if not properly cleaned, and you need to oil your hands before you begin working with the vegetable. Most people don’t have time. The banana stem and flower, and dill (shepu) which was once traditionally made every Janamashtami, are disappearing. There is a vegetable called knol-khol (ganth gobi), which you will need to really ask for to find now. These are cheap vegetables that are nutritious and can ideally be consumed more,” he says.
When Nandita Iyer, whose food blog Saffron Trail is popular, began to consult agricultural websites to discover local names for her writing, she began to discover greens. “I use malabar spinach (basale soppu in Kannada), water amaranth, tricolour keerai (dantina soppu in Kannada), common purslane (parappu keerai in Tamil). Old is the new new. Vegetarians need the variety, they are all low carb and it is traditionally said you should eat a variety of greens because no two greens give you the same nutrients,” she says.
Iyer, who grows her own carrots, says a huge part of using traditional vegetables is also the focus on using all parts of the vegetable. For example, she uses carrot tops to make thuvaiyal (a Tamil chutney eaten with rice).
Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal, who runs the A Perfect Bite chef’s studio in Powai, Mumbai, says she spends a lot of time searching for simple ingredients that were common in her childhood. “So many vegetables do not make it to supermarket shelves, which is where most people shop: baby methi (fenugreek), green garlic, Gujarati fresh turmeric and mango ginger; green and red mogris (rat-tail radish); green peppercorns that come into season in the winter and green fennel (saunf) are now restricted to Gujarati and south Indian dominated localities.”
Ghildiyal, who is from Kumaon, also uses traditional Kumaoni ingredients such as warm gehat bean salad with jamboo-scented butter. “Jamboo is a garlicky chive-like flavoured local dried herb used for tadkas, in many dals, including the winter special gehat ki dal which we know as kulith in Maharashtra. I toss til ki chutney made from large local limes and toasted sesame with pahari potatoes and local winter greens like tender rye and pahari palak, poaching chicken in jamboo-smoked buttermilk and serving it on a bed of green garlic flavoured jhangora (a local millet),” she says.
A popular misconception is that these vegetables don’t quite adapt readily to modern, eclectic diets. Most in fact have a distinctive taste and are highly adaptable to new preparations.
Ghildayal recommends using the greens to make a Mesclun-style salad tossed with sun-dried tomatoes, raisins and feta; or using baby methi in a sweet, crunchy stuffing for Vietnamese-style rice-paper rolls tossed with Oriental-toasted sesame oil; or using Gujarati fresh turmeric and mango ginger pickle as an accompaniment to Thai curry. “Green and red mogris are perfect, lightly stir-fried and tossed with noodles and peanuts. Dill (suva, shepu) is lovely in tzatziki—the Greek yogurt-based dip with olive oil. It also makes a lovely lemony fried rice that needs nothing else. Green peppercorns make an addictive pesto with olive oil and garlic or a fabulous green pepper vodka. As does green fennel. They are also an exciting addition to salads, or in a marinade for seafood dishes,” she says.
At the IIM Ahmedabad campus, they’re waiting for the return of a perennial favourite: the mahua ice cream. Tribal communities in Madhya Pradesh typically harvest the mahua flower from the tree found in deep forests, risking an encounter with panthers or tigers, to extract the liquor.
Locally called the mahuda ice cream, it is made by the Aadiaushadi group from Nivalda in Dediapada, part of the Shoolpaneshwar forests in Narmada, Gujarat. The recipe, a closely guarded secret, uses fresh milk, chopped mahuda, mahuda extract and sugar. Mahuda has 67% natural sugar, and acts as an energizer for the body (to order the ice cream, call 09879682290 or email firstname.lastname@example.org). A melting spoonful is more than just ice cream; it’s a way of life.
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Going back in time
Mandar Madav, sous chef, Lotus Café, JW Marriott Hotel, shares two favourite recipes
Maharashtrian Kelphulachi Bhaji
(Banana flower curry)
1 kelphul (banana flower)
N cup dry black chickpea or black vatana (peas)
For the tempering
1 tbsp oil
N tsp mustard seeds
N tsp cumin seeds
2 pinches of asafoetida
N tsp turmeric powder
K tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp Maharashtrian Goda masala
2 tsp jaggery
1 tsp tamarind pulp or 2 kokums (for sourness)
N cup fresh coconut, grated
Salt to taste
Soak the chickpea overnight and pressure-cook until tender. Peel the outer skin from the banana flower. Remove the small white flowers inside. Separate each flower. As you peel deeper, you will notice the flowers get smaller, whiter and very delicate. Also, you will find a big, white yet very delicate stem inside. Stop when you can’t peel any more. Cut the upper half of the white stem. It can be used too. Clean the small flowers by removing the long stem (with a matchstick-shaped head) inside each flower along with the outer feather. Clean all the flowers and chop finely. Next, soak the chopped flowers in a deep bowl of cold water with 2 tsp salt and K tsp turmeric powder for 3-4 hours to get rid of the stickiness. Drain and squeeze out any excess water. Cook in the pressure cooker (for around two-three whistles).
Heat oil in a pan. Temper with mustard seeds, cumin seeds, asafoetida, turmeric powder and red chilli powder. Add the steam-cooked chickpeas and banana flower. Also add Goda masala, salt and tamarind pulp. If you want a little gravy, add some water. Cover and cook for a few minutes. Then add jaggery and stir. Cook for a few more minutes. Once the vegetable is ready, add fresh grated coconut and mix. Serve hot with rotis.
(Sweet and tangy turnips)
500g turnips, peeled and cubed
4 small green chillies, chopped
A pinch of turmeric powder
2 tbsp oil/ghee/ butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp ginger, grated
K tbsp red chilli powder
K tsp garam masala powder
1 tsp coriander-cumin powder
2 tsp jaggery or sugar
1 tsp lime juice
Salt to taste
Fresh coriander, finely chopped
Combine the turnips, half the green chillies, salt and turmeric powder in a heavy-bottom pan. Add two cups of water. Cover and cook on low to medium heat for about 20 minutes or till the turnips have become soft and mushy (you could pressure-cook the turnips for two whistles to speed up the cooking process). Mash the turnips with the back of a ladle while stirring on high heat to dry. Heat the clarified butter in a pan and fry the onions on medium heat till light brown. Add ginger and the remaining green chillies. Fry briefly. Add all the dry spice powders and mix well. Add the turnips and keep stirring on high heat so that the mixture is completely mashed and dry. Add jaggery or sugar and keep stirring to mix well. Switch off the heat and mix in the lime juice. Garnish with chopped fresh coriander.