This is the season of abundance here, and the one time of the year when we can eat almost entirely hyper-local – we barely even need to travel the 10km for fresh produce into Sakleshpur thanks to the generosity of the jungle, our neighbours the paddy farmers who are growing vegetables, and our own vegetable garden, in that order.
Growing our own fruits and vegetables has proved harder than expected, but because of that we have been pushed into foraging a lot more. It turns out that gathering food from the forest is a lot easier and more fun that trying to coax poor soil into giving produce, so we have been doing rather a lot of it. The one constraint we have is insufficient botanical know-how. Almost all our knowledge of the edible and medicinal plants growing here has come from visitors. There is no foraging handbook, no weekend wild food courses. Nor have I been able to glean much information locally. I find the younger generation with whom we can talk fairly easily don’t seem to know much about wild food. The elderly, who are probably treasure troves of information, are often less open to talking and, to me, much less comprehensible.
Wild food isn’t as sweet, fleshy and soft as the varieties that man has cultivated from it. And it often needs more work to prepare. It is though often quite delicious – the heady scent of our wild mangoes for instance makes even Alfonsos seem inspid. And it is increasingly being recognised as far more nutritious than the weak and over-bred plants that make up our daily diet.
We have long wanted to write down and build on the little we do know about these plants, so here is a first stab at it. Comments, additions and edits are welcome. I have given names in English, Latin and Kannada where known.
Jackfruit | Artocarpus heterphyllus | Halasina kayi/hannu
There are many types of jackfruit. In addition to the standard large green variety which is sold in cities, with thick skin that takes skill or a lot of time to cut, and has a firm, slightly tangy flesh, we have the large brown ones which fall easily apart when you try to open them and have many more pods than the green ones, and flesh that is creamier, sweeter and more gooey. I have been told that the latter have some medicinal property.
We use the kayi (the unripe jackfruit) to make a coconut curry, or for pickle. You can also fry it to make jackfruit crisps.
When ripe, the fruit is huge and often we can’t finish a whole one so we often make it into jackfruit jam. People here grind it and use it to make dosa, idlis or fried snacks. It could also be dehyrdated.
Jungle Jack | Artocarpus hirsutus
This is a related but separate fruit to the jackfruit. Apparently it can be pickled when unripe. When ripe it is bright orange and creamy but with very little flesh. We have many trees but the fruit are all very high up in the canopy – unlike the jackfruit which grow conveniently on the trunk – and difficult to get down so we haven’t been able to eat or experiment with it much.
Wild Mango | Kadu Maavin Kayi/Hannu
The unripe mango is made into various pickles, including a local salted mango speciality. The ripe fruit is slightly sour and very fibrous compared to cultivated mangoes. Locals use it a bit in sambar. We made about 20 jars of mango jam from it last year which was a hit.
Wild Jamun | Kadu Nerale Hannu
This sweet cherry-like fruit can only be eaten when ripe. The wild ones here are tiny but much sweeter and with none of the astringency, when ripe, that the large ones on sale in the cities have. We expected a bumper harvest this summer as the trees fruit alternate years and we have a good ten or so huge jamun trees all of which were due to fruit. Our plans to make jamun jam and jamun wine though came to naught because none of the trees gave anything like the amount they had two years ago.
The fruit is creamy with big black seeds, and leaves a sticky residue on your hands and lips. I don’t have a photo unfortunately nor do I know its botanical or English name.
This tree is apparently good for furniture but it also produces a small green fruit which looks a bit like ber. Can anyone identify this? And is the fruit edible?
We also have a couple of these distinctive-leaved trees in the jungle. Bharath says they give an edible fruit but we haven’t yet collected or tried it. Does anyone know the name of the tree?
Purslane | Huli Soppu | Portulaca oleracea
This grows abudantly in the paddy fields just before the monsoon and throughout the year on the edges of the vegetable garden. I’ve read that it contains more iron than spinach. We usually make it into a soppu daal or if chopped finely a salad. The stalk can also be eaten. This is not native to India; it was introduced here a few hundred years ago from the Americas.
Amaranthus | Dantin Soppu
There are many varieties of this, some of which are cultivated. The wild variety pops up everywhere and seems to flower more and faster than the cultivated variety, which makes it harder to prepare because the flowers need to be removed. We normally cook it – treating it like spinach – unless it’s very young and tender.
Indian Nightshade | Ganikke soppu | Solanum ptychanthum
I’ve never seen anyone grow this. It springs up in all sorts of places. When young, the leaves are big and easy to use. As the plant matures, the leaves get smaller and it puts out flowers and then berries. The berries when black are edible and delicious (when green apparently they are poisonous, although I’m rather confused because a cursory Google search indicates the black ones can also be deadly). I’ve been told you should use only the leaves, not the stem or flowers.
Wood Sorrel | Oxalis stricta/corniculata
We have just started using this in our salads. It was introduced from Europe pre 19th century.
Brahmi | Mandukaparni | Centella asiatica
This is not the other, more famous Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) but still is meant to be excellent for all things to do with the head: brain power, mental balance and for the hair. It is slightly bitter. We have it in salads and juices, add it while cooking and also boil it along with our soapnut shampoo.
Kadu Mensin Kayi (this is what neighbours have told me it is called here; it means ‘wild pepper’)
We make our famous jungle juice, a great cooler in summer, from this by mashing the leaves in water. The same process is used for creating a hair conditioner and even a jelly. Its bunches of berries look similar to those of the cultivated pepper vine so perhaps that is what has earned it its name locally.
This is one of the jungle clearer’s greatest foes. It has tiny barbed thorns which seem to reach out and grab you every time you come near it and then stick in your skin. Its spreading, twisting branches make it difficult to hack at. And the more you cut it the more it grows. So although we know in theory that we could de-fang the tendermost leaves and cook with them, we are far more concerned with getting rid of the plant at the moment.
I’m not sure if this is actually related to coriander, but its leaves taste and smell just like the domesticated herb.
And I’d also like to find out more about edible ferms. These are the ones we have growing here. A friend told me that this type of fern can be eaten.
You pluck the tendril shoots before they unfurl in the morning, soak them in vinegar and then eat raw or cook.
Wild Brinjal | Sonde Kayi | Solanum torvum
Wild brinjal looks exactly like its cultivated cousin except that it has nasty thorns and grows anywhere and everywhere extremely quickly. In fact it is so fast growing, and so thorny and resilient, that we cut down much more than we use. Its hard green berries can be prepared in a variety of ways – but always first crushed, soaked, drained and then cooked as they are very bitter – and kill parasites in the stomach. The flowers are also apparently good for sore throats. This originally comes from the West Indies.
Taro| Kesa | Colocasia esculenta
There is much confusion, among us at least, about which of the many wild taro plants growing here are edible. I have had two bad experiences, once with the leaf which we didn’t cook properly and once with the root which I assume was from the non-edible variety. In both cases, eating even the tiniest bit of the leaf or the root made our throats constrict. A friend told me that only the ones with black stalks, like this,
can be eaten. I’m a bit wary though of trying again but maybe third time lucky…
Many of the plants listed above have medicinal properties. In addition we are aware of the following ones which are used, as far as we know, as medicine more than food:
This was introduced from tropical America. It has a sweet base which the children love to suck on.
Mimosa pudica | Touch Me Not
A ubiquitous rather annoying ground level shrub with tiny prickles which closes when you touch it. I think it is also nitrogen fixing.
Pandanus odoratissimus | Ketaki
This grows in abundance by rivers and in waterlogged places around us.
There is also this which looks like Asparagus racemosus or Shatavari, a relation of the better known asparagus (Asparagus officianalis), which is used in women’s health. Locals harvest it from the jungle but I haven’t been able to find out exactly what for.
Asparagus racemosus growing in our herbal igloo
The wild plant which looks like it might be related
A close up of the wild version
[I also see that several of our cultivated plants, aside from the specific medicinal herbs we grow, also have medicinal uses, including:
Ixora coccinea, a red shrub with a globe of tiny red flowers
Allamanda cathartica, a common creeper with flowers of yellow or pink
Basella alba, basale soppu or Malabar spinach. This is apparently brilliant for mouth ulcers. The children squish the dark seeds to make nail polish.
Passiflora foetida, passionflower. We have recently tried making fresh and dried teas from the leaves and flowers; it is a great relaxant which can help you sleep better.]
There are one or two types of mushroom that locals say we can eat. They grow at the beginning of the rainy season on the grasslands such as the meadow by our house. There are many many others about which we know nothing. Where can we get more information?
Being vegetarian, we haven’t explored the meat side of things. I do know though that people regularly hunt wild boar; we often encounter a couple of men with a gun on our land or our neighbours’. It is illegal and often the hunters fabricate some story to explain their presence with a firearm. I have also once seen a woman collecting the tiny crabs that abound in the paddy fields when flooded. She even showed us how to break off the various extraneous parts of it so as to be left with a bite-size piece of crab meat under the main shell. Locals also set up fish traps in the rivers, when the rivers haven’t been pumped dry. I haven’t though seen the fish they catch. Perhaps in the big river of the district, the Hemavati, they are decent sized but I’ve never seen fish there and certainly in the small streams that run through the paddy the fish must be tiny.
As an aside, we have also become adept at using up the parts of fruits and vegetables that are normally wasted. Here are some of our favourites:
After eating the red fruit, you are left with a white layer of flesh and the hard green rind. Remove the rind and you can then grate the white flesh into a salad like cucumber, cut it up and cook it in a palya or sambar as you would bottle gourd, or make halva. A friend showed me a great way to use it recently: grind it into a thick liquid and use that to mix the batter for idlis (we keep a flour of ground rice and urad daal here which we soak in water overnight for idlis and dosas). The white flesh has lots of calcium apparently and is much the most nutritious part of the fruit.
Many people do use the protein-packed jackfruit seeds in sambar, or roast or boil them. We are also trying to look at other ways of processing them, perhaps by drying them out and making a flour to add to rotis or bread. I’ve once tried making them into a houmous. Any other ideas?
There are enough banana trees for us to eat banana stem everyday, should we want to. It’s quite fibrous – good for cleaning the stomach apparently – so once a month is probably ample. We cut it up fine and cook with potatoes or in a sambar.
In Kerala they use this a lot, but around here most people don’t seem interested. A friend taught us a simple recipe with coconut. You have to first prepare all of the flower stems though. I’ve also heard it can be eaten as a salad.