Most of our traditional backyard herbs, leaves and fruits have become global health A-listers. The west has termed them superfood. Every New Year, experts zero in on the best food folks need to make a regular meal of that particular year. Last year's list included moringa leaves (leaves of the drumstick tree), watermelon seeds and tapioca powder. It's but natural that the food selected keeps changing. Usually a combination of meats and vegetables are chosen by the experts to be put up for healthy consumption.
Going by the expert list, there are quite a lot of leaves and vegetables that Keralites have given the go-by. It’s as clear as daylight that we toss away the most medicinal and most nutritious of plants without realizing the folly of our ignorance. On the contrary, a market itself can be set up if consumers are made aware of the benefits of these locally available vegetables and leaves.
Root vegetables like potatoes and carrots are very popular and their presence is found in quite a lot of curries. In fact, potatoes are the most widely consumed root vegetable the world over.
If potatoes are a world-wide hit, what’s got to be Kerala's own superfood is undoubtedly our kappa or tapioca or cassava. Likewise, our yam, colocasia, cherukizhangu and purple yam (kaachil) are equally popular tubers. If we include these vegetables in our daily menu, we would be rendering a great service to local farmers who could cultivate them on a large scale.
Unlike tapioca, Malayalis are no more in the habit of eating yam and colocasia. These are eaten only on special occasions like for example, when they are mass-cooked for a wedding feast. These tubers are what flavour aviyal and koottukari and can be added to other vegetables to make diverse dishes. Hence, experts advise us to make these vegetable roots a part of our daily diet.
Edible seeds from several fruits have also found a place on our menu. The world over, there are umpteen dishes whipped up with seeds. When viewed from this perspective, no seed could perhaps match the quality of our backyard jackfruit seeds or chakkakuru. Pumpkin and watermelon seeds are much in demand these days. People have started grinding these seeds as well as those of certain other vegetables to a paste for use alongside special dishes. If jackfruit seeds are made a part of one’s daily meal, it could be a family budget-saver as well.
It’s not just over seeds that health buffs go crazy. Leaves are in much demand these days. Kerala too has a bountiful presence of leaves, the red cheera (red spinach) being the most popular. When red cheera is not available, our backyards are full of the green variety. These types can be home-grown at no special cost. They just grow and need not be tended to. Dishes with colocasia and yam (chembu thaal curry) are high on taste. Tender colocasia leaves make for excellent “theeyals”. The leaves can again be cooked along with certain fish dishes and added to vegetable stews. A conscious effort has to be made to make leaves a part of one’s meal. When people resort to locally available seeds and leaves, it will certainly bring down the jacked-up cost of vegetables that cross the borders and flood our markets.
It’s strange that when the west and the rest of the world swear by the medicinal efficacy of moringa leaves, the Malayali happily ignores those wonder leaves that grow in abundance all over the state. Moringa leaves can be cooked on their own or in combination with dal. Moringa leaves are slowly replacing curry leaves when dishes are seasoned with mustard. Try using the leaves in all curries. They go well with fish. One of Sri Lanka’s famous crab dishes has a huge helping of moringa leaves in it.
Another wonder fruit that has the world in thrall is jackfruit. But one’s left wondering whether the Malayali makes full use of the fruit when it’s abundantly available during its season. A lot of it goes to waste. It’s common and perfectly acceptable to see ripe and rotting fruits by the base of the tree with birds making merry around them.
A full grown fruit can feed a whole lot of people. Even before it turns completely ripe, the raw fruit is medicinal. Even the tender jackfruits are ideal for various dishes. The jackfruit is not just a fruit, it’s an elixir as well. Let’s make jackfruit a habit.
Another backyard fruit that’s been overlooked for its health benefits is the breadfruit (sheema chakka). When people around the world pay through their nose for this vegetable, the Malayali is not overtly fond of it. Experts once again urge people to eat all that’s seasonally and locally available. The pumpkin, ash gourd, ivy gourd, ridge gourd, cheera and banana shoot are ideal backyard health veggies.
The papaya is another fruit rich in minerals and vitamins that’s available abundantly in Kerala. But the fruit is much sought after when ripe rather than when raw. Raw papayas can be turned into dishes aplenty. It goes well with aviyal and can appear as good thorans. Add a wee bit of colour to thin slices of raw papaya, mix them in rice and give them to kids. Papaya too can be made a daily dish. Raw papaya is ideal for salads too.
The more popular or imported carrots, potatoes and cauliflower can come in later. Go for these only when we have exhausted our stock of jackfruit, cheera, Chinese potato, banana shoot, pumpkin, yam, colocasia, various gourds, jackfruit, breadfruit and drumstick.
Coming to pickles, the vegetables or berries can again be from our backyard. Mangoes, champakka (water apple), loobikka (Indian coffee plum), gooseberry and ginger that grow lushly in kitchen gardens are the stuff of home-made pickles. This should surely enrich our plates when served with chemicals-free, preservatives-free pickles.
Our eating habits and our farming thus work out in two-pronged styles. We get to eat fresh, nutritious and pesticides-free stuff and this in turn will induce farmers to go in for local produce farming.
Be local, buy local, be seasonal and buy seasonal.