India’s forgotten food revolution leads enthusiasts to turn over a new leaf

Chefs and home cooks are experimenting with everything from moringa and pumpkin flowers to purple yams and red okra

Deomali mutton by chef Amninder Sandhu follows cooking techniques inspired by the Tai Phake, Mishing and Naga tribes. Photo: Amninder Sandhu
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When Meenakshi Boopathi, a software professional from Chennai, opened her lunch box one afternoon, her colleagues were intrigued. Her lunch comprised bread and bhurji, but unlike the ordinary dish made of spiced scrambled eggs, this bhurji was redolent with the scent of moringa, yellow-white flowers that grow on drumstick trees native to the Indian subcontinent. Mopping it up with hunks of bread, the group was blown away by the dish’s pillowy softness.

“We have a huge moringa tree near our house and it’s not only the drumsticks we collect, but also the fresh flowers,” Boopathi says.

In India, flowers are most often used for decoration or for stringing together to make garlands for religious ceremonies, but they are rarely viewed as an everyday food any more.

“However, many flowers make for delicious foods, too,” says Boopathi, whose lifestyle choices are influenced by her environmentally conscious parents, who shopped at local markets and chose age-old ingredients over pizzas and burgers.

Meenakshi Boopathi started a Facebook page, Forgotten Foods, which culminated in a calendar in 2022. Photo: Meenakshi Boopathi

“This prompted me to start a Facebook page in January 2020 called Forgotten Foods, where I posted recipes and discussed the health benefits of long-forgotten ingredients,” she says.

In 2021, she worked on a trilingual calendar (in English, Hindi and Kannada) along with G Krishna Prasad, founder of Sahaj Samrudha, an organisation that has been promoting forgotten foods since 2006, to show off some such dishes.

In 2022, the calendar was published in English and Tamil and spoke of foods in five categories: edible flowers, diverse fruits and seeds, remedial leaves, tasty stems, and robust roots.

The calendar explains an ingredient's benefits and also shares recipes. Photo: Meenakshi Boopathi

Each page features a group of foods along with their health benefits, and offers traditional recipes, many of which have been gathered from chefs and villagers who cook with these ingredients. For instance, pumpkin flowers that can be eaten as fritters or pakoras come under the edible flowers section. Rich in vitamin B, they make for a great evening snack. “Simply grab some pumpkin flowers, dip them in a spicy batter and deep-fry,” Boopathi says.

Then there is a banana stem rice recipe, in which banana stems are grated and cooked with basmati rice. “Stems are generally overlooked as a food option and end up in the dustbin. But stalks of banana, lotus and palm shoots can be used to make sumptuous pulavs and curries,” Prasad says.

Another forgotten leaf known for its remedial benefits is the balloon vine, a deciduous plant that grows in open spaces, wastelands and river banks in India and Africa, and helps relieve joint pain. The leaves, called mudakathan in Tamil, are used to make a dosa laced with spicy chutney. Further on, the calendar focuses on roots and tubers such as aerial potato, cassava, giant taro and purple yam. Of late, the purple yam, the colour of which varies from lavender to purple, has received a lot of attention in India, with roots and tuber fairs organised in cities such as Mysore and Joida.

Talking of the low-maintenance plant, Prasad says when he planted the tuber on a patch of land near his house, it sprouted by itself yielding a basketful of yam. The calendar features purple yam theplas (flatbread) prepared by adding grated yam, wheat flour, carom seeds, chopped coriander and yoghurt. “It makes for a great way to savour this lesser-known vegetable,” Prasad says.

Purple yam is a forgotten food increasingly featured at roots and tuber fairs in India. Photo: G Krishna Prasad

Elsewhere, Akash Muralidaran embarked upon his own forgotten foods journey when he chanced upon a long-forgotten Tamil cookbook, Samaithu Paar by S Meenakshi Ammal. This cookbook was traditionally part of a bride’s trousseau, and is a manual for cooking with vegetables with details on various ways to prepare them.

This treasure trove of information formed the basis for Muralidaran’s 100 Days Cook and See challenge on Instagram. He discovered that a lot of vegetables mentioned in the book have gone missing from most Tamil kitchens, including moringa, pumpkin flowers, air potatoes and sword beans.

Thus began the 100-day project featuring these lesser-known vegetables, which made Muralidaran view his everyday meals in a new light. He adapted existing recipes to suit lost vegetables, matching flavour profiles and textures. For example, he cooked moringa flowers following the steps for a recipe featuring banana blossoms.

Other foods he prepared include aloe vera thogaiyal, a chutney that can be added to rice or enjoyed with dosa; sponge gourd, which can be used in soups and curries; red okra, which is shaped like a torpedo and has a taste that’s a mix between an asparagus and aubergine. When cooked, the red colour disappears and the pods turn green.

The project ended in June 2020, but the next step involves tying up with restaurants. “Restaurants are powerful places that influence the eating habits of any city ― they could be a starting point to begin celebrating these vegetables,” Muralidaran says.

It is not only long-lost ingredients that are being revived, but also cooking techniques. Amninder Sandhu, an award-winning chef and a finalist on Netflix’s The Final Table, is known for reviving lost recipes through her two outposts: Ammu in Mumbai and Nora in Pune.

Forgotten Indian food include edible flowers. Photo: Meenakshi Boopathi

She makes Deomali mutton, a dish that is a product of her travels to Assam in east India. Based on her interaction with members of the Tai Phake tribe in Dibrugarh as well as the Mishing tribe in Majuli, Sandhu prepares a fragrant jasmine rice wrapped in a green alpinia leaf, which is characterised by its gold and yellow streaks, and serves it alongside a saffron-coloured mutton, slow-cooked in bamboo stalks.

“This slow-cooking technique in bamboo harks back to another age-old method, practised by the Naga community,” Sandhu says.

Whether it is Sandhu’s quest to revive lost cooking techniques, Muralidaran’s social media project or Boopathi’s food calendar, health and planet-conscious foodies would do well to take a leaf out of the forgotten food revolution taking root in India.

Updated: November 11, 2022, 6:12 PM
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