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Leafy Heaven: India’s edible greens satiating the rising interest for sustainable foods

The wide choice of leafy greens that India has to offer could well satiate the rising interest for sustainable foods and lower food wastage.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Aug 18, 2019, 09.41 AM IST
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Despite all the benefits of leafy greens, the sheer range of such vegetables and the cleaning process can put a dampener on its usage.
There can come a time when the most dedicated lovers of edible leafy greens wonder whether they are starting to resemble cows. As they pick and pluck through big bunches of leaves, often encountering caterpillars and other bugs, it is hard to suppress the thought that it would be simpler just to use spinach.

This would be a pity because India’s leafy greens have a lot to offer. There is, for one, their incredible diversity. Sudhir Kumar’s Leafy and Edible Plants of North-East India includes 278 varieties, starting from Abelmoschus esculentus to Zizyphus funiculosa, and that is just one part of the country. Other biodiversity hotspots like the Western Ghats or the Sunderbans could probably match that.

Knowledge of these greens, and their healthful benefits, has long resided in tribal or rural communities. In the 1920s, a young British medical researcher named Lucy Wills identified a nutritional deficiency among the wives of mill-workers who had come to Bombay, due to lack of access to the leafy greens they would eaten in their villages. This was initially called the Wills Factor, or folate (from foliage), but is now known as vitamin B9.

Some greens do come to the city, usually during the monsoon when they are abundant (and one of the few fresh foods available). Some of the demand is driven by festivals like Rishi Panchami, just before Ganesh Chaturthi, which venerates the sages who in Hindu mythology lived in the jungles. Because many greens are foraged from the wild, they carry an aura of ancient sanctity. In Maharashtra, they are cooked in a special dish for the festival.

Another example is the Choddo Shaak, the 14 leafy greens traditionally eaten in Bengal on Bhoot Chaturdashi, the night before Kali Puja. Like many major festivals, this takes place when food crops are freshly available. Many of the 14 greens are the leaves of these crops — like pumpkins, turnips, chickpeas, radishes, mustard — and cooking them simply made thrifty and healthy sense.

A new demand has now arisen from chefs and restaurants. This is partly inspired by the use of foraged foods in Scandinavian restaurants like Noma and Faviken, and partly by the general interest in sustainable foods, as foraged greens are if harvested responsibly. Using the leaves of food crops also reduces wastes, as do perennial sources like trees, such as Moringa (drumstick) tree leaves, which are also particularly high in protein.

Recently, the Bombay Canteen presented a menu based on wild greens from the Western Ghats, sourced with the help of OOO Farms, which works with tribal farmers in the eastern Sahyadris, and Sanjay Patil, an expert in sustainable food with the BAIF Foundation, a non-profit set up by Manibhai Desai, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. Diners could order from a menu featuring wild foods cooked in soups, in salads and served in a thali. They could also attend a workshop on how to use them, and buy bunches of wild greens to cook at home.
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The Bombay Canteen has a workshop for diners on cooking wild greens

Despite such initiatives, and all the benefits of these greens, actual usage is likely to remain low. The diversity is confusing — how do you know which to cook which way? Many health benefits are unproven or over-claimed, and there can be problems — like kidney stones, since the oxalates in some greens can contribute to them. Some leaves, like colocasia, have high levels of oxalic acid that can cause a toxic reaction that manifests as a prickly feeling in the throat. This can be removed by proper preparation, usually by boiling them enough.

But perhaps the biggest drawback is all the tedious plucking and destemming. Simply slicing up spinach seems so much simpler. One solution is to buy more bunches. Greens are usually very cheap in season, and multiple bunches allow a few big handfuls to be easily plucked from each. The balance can be composted (or fed to a friendly cow).

Any bugs should be seen as a sign of pesticide-free growth, and can easily be cleaned away by swishing the bunches in soapy and then clean water. Any stems that remain after cooking should be treated like fish-bones, to be either swallowed or spat out.
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In the market, leafy greens are usually sold by older people sitting on the margins with a few bunches on a sheet before them. These sellers usually give good tips on how to cook the greens, especially which ones cause the oxalic acid reaction. But apart from this, cooking leafy greens generally comes down to a few basic techniques like stir-frying, adding them to dal, cooking them in a closed pot with a little water to steam them, or boiling and making them into a puree that could become a chutney or a base for other dishes. Most edible greens are, by definition, tender enough to eat without problems, but older and tougher leaves are best used in a puree.

Greens also tend to fall into a few taste categories, which simplifies their cooking. A few varieties have unusual tastes, like moras-bhaji, a succulent green that grows in mangrove swamps and has a distinctly salty taste, which lends itself to be snacked on raw, like potato chips. But most greens are either sour, like ambadi (a hibiscus variety), or slightly bitter or just have a spinach-like savouriness, and within these categories can be used quite interchangeably. Following a few basic rules like this can be the best way to appreciate the abundance of India’s edible leafy greens.
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