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The hunt for wild edibles

An amateur forager breaks down the hows and whys of sourcing ingredients from the great outdoors

Foraging is a means of survival for a few but a lesson in food history for all. Photo: iStock
Foraging is a means of survival for a few but a lesson in food history for all. Photo: iStock

On a cold November morning in 2015, we were walking through terrace farms in the village of Darap, Sikkim. The sun had just broken in, leaving the top of Kanchenjunga shimmering. I was on a food trail, on the look-out for new ingredients that the state had to offer. We spotted a tree with tiny green fruits that our guide told us were wild avocados.

A few days later, I was carrying these lime-sized fruits with me to Slow Food International’s Indigenous Terra Madre event in Shillong—a space to deliberate over indigenous food systems and their challenges. An indigenous Mexican tribal leader I met at the conference was quite puzzled by its appearance and I used my pocket knife to cut through it and give him a closer look. He smelt it, nibbled a little piece and muttered a few words in his own language. It seemed like he had finally understood this wild little fruit’s connection with the avocado, the ancient fruit that originated in his home country millennia ago.

Modern research suggests that humans have inhabited the planet for nearly 350,000 years. But it is only in the last 10,000 years that we stopped being nomadic hunters and settled into communities, grew grains, domesticated animals, fermented our alcohol and so on. Somewhere in us, though, there still exists that impalpable instinct—honed over hundreds of thousands of years—that’s almost an “aha" moment. It’s the feeling that transported the indigenous tribal leader to his land and the same feeling that I get when I forage in the wild and find something unexpected, and edible.

In 2015, while foraging in the Redwood National and State Parks of Northern California, I spotted a plant with a square cross-sectioned stem, bushy pink flowers, and tiny leaves I had never seen. I correctly identified it as a wild varietal of forest mint (Mentha laxiflora), chewing it and allowing the weedy oils of the plant to refresh my palate.

In today’s world, foraging is no longer a means of survival. The purpose for an amateur forager like me, and probably most foragers, is to enjoy what nature has on offer, any time of the year, and learn more about food, food webs and our human history. Invariably, one learns basics about how a forest works, its building blocks, from lichens to lychees. But foraging with locals gives you a lot more perspective.

While looking for tithe niguro (bitter fiddlehead ferns) in Lingee Payong, Sikkim, my friendly guide Gitanath explained how in 1100 AD, the Himalayan kingdoms of Bhutan and Sikkim fought a fierce battle that lasted 22 years. The Lepchas (Sikkim’s indigenous population) were experts at guerrilla warfare and did a great job holding the mountainous, forested borders. Women had to depend on the forest for food and a lot of knowledge of wild edibles was created and retained. Later that night, I enjoyed some stir-fried, foraged fiddleheads with fresh and soft chhurpi cheese, registering the fact that I had got a peek into the deep and historic connection people feel to the land there.

Wild avocados foraged in Sikkim. Photo: Aditya Raghavan

How to forage right

Perhaps the first advice any forager can give is to spend time focusing on greenery when you walk, whether you’re in a park, or hiking in the country. The second is to know your plants, plant families and their ecosystem.

The most important advice, though, is to take care of your wild resources. It was in Nagaland that I learnt this lesson well. We were in the village of Chizami, looking to harvest lyha (Cerambyx cerdo) wood-borers. These arthropods live inside the trunks of oak trees (so they have a lovely woody flavour). Only the larger insects are chosen, and always after leaving a few. They are favoured in side dishes. The insects are crisped in a warm pan after being boiled in water with dried ginger.

I also learnt that when picking wild edible ferns and other plants, the locals would never uproot, and, as far as possible, keep the plants untouched till they became sizeable and could withstand the loss of a few leaves. These small tips are meant to preserve the life cycle of the uncultivated species.

Should we all go forage then?

There is a global foraging trend that is heading to the shores of India, just as we are getting used to the seasonal and local food trend. Food lovers are more in tune with seasonal vegetables, fruits and herbs. I visit the local markets of Mumbai looking for the one or two vendors that carry foraged greens such as rajgira, katerimath or junglee fruits such as amla or kadu kand. More importantly, social media influencers like celebrity chefs, food enthusiasts and bloggers are instagramming their interest in seasonal green tuvar, or local mango varietals.

But as we embark upon this trend of consuming wild edibles, we should exercise some caution. Uncultivated foods pose a fascinating dilemma. The good thing is that the food you pick in the wild has zero carbon footprint. Second, harvesting them can be sustainable if done correctly by people who understand the ecosystem and seasons well. But if we open the floodgates, and somehow millions of people wake up one morning gearing up to pick flowers from neem trees, we might be driving head-on into a collision with the environment. Even with the best sustainability practices, foraging will never be scalable; hence farming.

Foraging and fine dining

Restaurants need consistency and farms provide that. It was the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen that bolstered the trend of wild edibles by putting several foraged foods on its enormous tasting menu. This led to all kinds of foodies (me included) in Europe and North America hunting for mushrooms, lichens, wild berries and pine needles, to name a few. In 2015, the MAD symposium and now defunct journal Lucky Peach studied the carbon footprint of three meals: a home-cooked meal, a meal at Prime Meats (a chain-restaurant), and one at Noma. Noma had three times the carbon footprint of a home-cooked or Prime Meats meal.

About 7% of their overall carbon footprint was due to foraging. Yes, foraging ingredients like reindeer lichen that weigh less than feathers does have a footprint, for Noma’s foragers would drive 250km a week carrying these delicate gifts of the forest. It is important to point out that Noma’s endeavour was never to create the lowest carbon-footprint food.

The worrying aspect is the next generation of chefs, who have perhaps interned at, worked, or simply been inspired by Noma’s prowess. Noma’s well-documented rise to the top restaurant in the world, back in 2010, was based mostly on redefining Nordic cuisine. Masque in Mumbai has overtones of this influence; its Instagram account calls it a “wilderness-to-table restaurant" with posts on turnip “hunting" on a farm in Kashmir. It is exciting to see more creative use of commonly found vegetables like the turnip and lotus stem in India. However, the high food miles on shalgam and kamal kakdi “foraged" from farms and markets in Kashmir, rather than being bought from the vegetable vendor outside the restaurant, cannot justify the creative outputs seen in their beautiful plates.

Mushrooms are a common find when foraging. Photo: iStock

Foraging in an Indian context

There is nothing new about wild edibles in India. More than just Ayurvedic jadi-bootis, seasonal and local ingredients, including uncultivated foods, can be found easily in many vegetable markets around the country. That is certainly a starting point for those looking to get creative. A great primer on this topic is the book First Food: Culture Of Taste, published last year, which has detailed essays on seasonal greens, spices, herbs, fruits, vegetables, tubers and more.

Given India’s climate and geography, we have access to a very large set of ecosystems. Spending time in towns and villages, almost anywhere, again showcases how people often look outside their homes for things growing wild that can be nurtured and enjoyed for a season or longer. Almost everyone has some form of memory of picking amla, ber, or mangoes in the wild, perhaps when they were younger. Or, in Nagaland, of awaiting the season of fruits like mezutshe or soliputshe, finding ways to preserve and cherish them for a few months more than the environment allows. Keeping this trend alive and reaching out for old recipes of some of these seasonal gems is perhaps the best way to sustain our food interests, and get creative with foraged foods.

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