A lot of renewed interest and enthusiasm is recently seen in ‘edible weed walks’. Following the lockdown people have started using the knowledge they have gathered over the time about what a certain plant is, whether it is edible and how to go about preparing a fancy meal out of it. These guys love experimenting with recipes and get excited over finding new edible plants in the most unexpected of places; in the crevices between pavement stones and broken asphalt, in overgrown street sides, sidewalks, abandoned lots and parks.
Many of these weeds and plants we usually dismiss as having no culinary taste or medicinal value. A class of new urban foragers however thinks otherwise. For them “the food is already there, it’s just not recognized as one.”
You could feast on sidewalk salads
I find a new class of urban foragers sporting pruning shears and a plastic bag, walk along the sidewalks each morning scouting for plants and weeds that can make them a tasty salad or stir-fry. The other day my septuagenarian neighbor was stalking from a sidewalk weed with downy leaves and white powder commonly called goosefoot or lamb’s quarters. Goosefoot is a cousin to spinach, but actually more nutritious. You could treat it like spinach in the kitchen. You can sauté it with butter, add it in soups or even just eat it raw and marvel at its crunchy texture and mild flavor.
“I collect a lot of this”, he would confide in me sometimes. ‘It is indistinguishable from spinach when you cook it. I never ever buy spinach or other greens except kale”. And I would nod with all seriousness. Honestly I didn’t know what was this ‘kale’ thing he was talking about until recently. The internet of things has made me a little wiser on this;
A member of the cabbage family, kale is a leafy green that’s related to Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and other cruciferous veggies that have high concentration of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Closer to wild cabbage it is a vegetable with green or purple leaves. Few also know it as “Karam Saag”.
He is among a small group of new class of urban foragers who would collect weeds and plants from city sidewalks and their backyards to use in meals and sometimes as medicine. Some claim to be survivalists while a few declare themselves as environmentalist but clans apart, all seek new flavors for cooking.
Unlike a big city where more and more people are getting attracted to this unique gourmet activity, he leads a small group of 10 odd people only each weekend to forage. “People have a lot many different reasons. They are freegans, vegans, food lovers, environmentalist and it’s definitely more middle class than working class”, he would sum up. A boisterous smile would then crease his wrinkled face momentarily for having shared the secret.
Choice rather than necessity
Urban foraging has become more of a choice than a necessity today. Most foragers see both the health and environmental benefits to eating a more natural diet. The spare time the lockdown offers and uncertainty facing the gourmet joints has spurred interest in foraging- a practice so widespread in rural hinterland and amongst the indigenous communities everywhere that it has gained acceptance as an epicurean delight.
Perhaps it is the Nature’s way of manifesting ‘healing’ during the lockdown that sidewalks and parking lots have turned greener and resemble a supermarket shelf. Or probably it is the deserted streets and thin traffic these days that has made me take notice of what has always been there – a surprising lush treat of edible greens that most of us would dismiss as weeds and unwanted part of urban backdrop.
These are the super foods that could ask for premium price tags, are delicious and savory and most sought after by those who love exploring food. Amaranth, Purslane and Wood sorrel are a few that could well be used in stir-fries, salads, smoothies, pickles, soups and even as garnish.
But what makes them so special..!!
Amaranth is classified as a pseudo cereal as it differs from other grains found in the market. Grown for its starchy gluten free edible seeds, it does not belong to the family of cereals like rice and wheat but is incredibly versatile in its uses. Rich in antioxidants, micro-nutrients, fiber and protein. Few also know it as ‘Rajgira’, ‘Seel’ or ‘Ramdana’.
Purslane is a green leafy vegetable that could also be eaten raw. Scientifically called Portulaca oleracea, it is also known as pigweed, little hogweed and fat weed. (‘Kulpha-ka-Saag’).
Wood sorrel, a rhizomatous flowering plant from Oxalidaceae family is a native of most of Europe and parts of Asia. Leaves, flowers, and seed pods, which resemble miniature okra fruits are all edible. It begins to wilt almost immediately after harvesting, so it’s best eaten on the spot. It’s tangy, somewhat sour flavor makes it an excellent garnish in just about any salad.
Promises of foraging
Skeptics still dog the urban foraging. What bugs me most are the people who are merely excited about eating wild plants. These are the survivalist who believe that they could somehow subsist on anything wild and vegan. Actually put to test they who would most likely end up starving to death. “There’s a thin line between badass and dumbass.”- Rebecca Lerner had retorted in ‘Dandelion Hunter’. After a week of living off the land in Portland, she had penned; “My body was achy and limp. My legs were so weak that I had to brace myself against the wall like an old lady who lost her walker.” She eventually gave up and gorged on Thai food.
Herbalists meanwhile insist on telling everybody that such and such is good for the liver, this will flush out your toxins; that will cure you of breathlessness etc. etc. I do believe in alternative medicines but when I try to learn something, I want my information to be verifiable rather than based on hearsay. When somebody chips in and tells me that Echinacea (purportedly widely used in treatment of different kind of infections) cures cold, it instinctively makes me doubt everything else.
Then there are the taste-bud-less ones; those who would happily munch on tough old dandelions and find them delicious.
It is pretty easy to find books and videos that could tell you which plants are ‘edible’. But my quest instead is for plants and weeds that actually taste good. There are lot many plants that the experts would advise you to boil thrice changing water every time before you could eat if you are starving. Many more would rush to enlighten you on the ability of this or that plant to pass through your mouth undetected for it is mild in texture but toothsome. These are the people who would frequently ignore flavor.
Let’s not give an ear to how the three classes of foragers find favor with their revelations. Let’s not spoil the fun for what’s done right, could be truly good feast. But are foraged plants and weeds good enough to see you through the day? Certainly not. You must understand that you can’t actually survive on wild salads alone. It’s the fruits, nuts, seeds, roots that provide you the extra calories. Blackberries, pine nuts, and Manzanita flowers in the spring and their powdery, sun baked berries in the fall could well add flavor to your plate. And what more…
Don’t eat merely because these ‘starvation salads’ sound pretty good right now. Don’t even think of two or three star Michelin star restaurants World over that are serving foraged weeds already. These finest restaurants rely on the art of tapping the flavors and textures of things people normally don’t think of as food. It just happens that you might make a meal more a little more delicious with a touch of wild. Just don’t eat your yard, for wild plants are free for your picking.
Foraging is no Fiddlesticks
“People do everything they can to get rid of them, and they keep coming back. If you can’t beat them why not eat them?” (in Snacking In-Between Sidewalks: Angela Johnston)
There are still two issues that need straight answers, First, is it safe to eat green that grows amid spilled paint, auto exhaust, dog piss, the insurmountable urban filth and grime? Second, will the people who definitely need more greens in their daily intake, have the time to forage for, wash and cook them?
Plants do absorb pollutants and toxic waste but it’s unclear if they take in enough to cause concern. The second question is a bit tricky. Foraging could be your only choice and makes perfect sense if you are cash poor and time rich. But it makes no sense if you are working with 8-10 hr job and still broke. I have seen attempts to fix food deserts fail, not because people lacked access to veggies but they probably didn’t have the skills to make them delicious, or the time to prepare them.
As Foraging Gump would have quipped, “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
While the virus has made starker the impact of human activities on the environment, some emphasize foraging is the way to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. Could you flaw the attempt to localize and decolonize food through foraging? Is there anything wrong when it means reducing your food miles and carbon footprint?
There is still a lot of resistance to urban foraging though. People are wary and wonder if the food is ‘clean’ enough, whether the land is contaminated. Good enough reasons to think twice before consuming foraged food!
Gourmands seeking new flavors for cooking however don’t worry too much. They are careful not to forage in or near industrial or former industrial areas. They also do not pick from areas of high foot traffic or where dogs are walked. But other than that everything else seems alright to ‘pick clean’, to be swished in cold water once at home and ready to be consumed. Compared to the kind of pesticides that are used in cultivation of most ‘grocery store veggies’, foraged finds are a wee bit more safe.
Trust me, at the end of the day dipping your toast in a delicious pesto when you least expected it, and devouring flavorful and irrepressibly delicious spreads could make it all worthwhile . Experience the flavors of these foods for once and then decide for yourself.
I think the majority of you when you experience these wild edibles, are going to think, ‘Oh yes! it’s yum. I like that.”