Food on trees rescuing in Pandemic

With the ongoing current pandemic of Covid-19 and the subsequent lock downs throughout India, one of the smallest states of India, Goa situated in Western India along the Arabian Sea cost seemed to be adversely affected by the lockdown. Goa which primarily is a hot tourist destination for both Indians as well as tourists from overseas largely depends on its food supplies of staples from its neighbouring states. With all state and international borders sealed, supply of fresh green vegetables dwindled and so was there a scarcity of food grains, fish and meat. But to the rescue came the jackfruit, which was like food sent from heaven.

Goa anyhow has a long association with the Jackfruit which in the local language they call, ‘Ponos’. Indigenous and underappreciated jackfruit tree is celebrated in Goa during the Ponsachem fest, or Jackfruit festival, with people paying tribute to it by wearing costumes inspired by the tree, and eating and drinking the fruit in myriad forms. Several groups in Goa currently market jackfruit preserves like standardised juice, pulp, squash, pickles, jam, chips, and fruit leather or ‘saath’ under the brand name of ‘Kathal de Goa’ – in the North India, the jackfruit is known as ‘kathal’. Jackfruits in India are consumed both raw as well as when it is ripened and acquires honey like sweetness and a banana like flavour.

‘Xacuti’ (pronounced as Sha-kuti) is a Goan curry, with complex spicing, including white poppy seeds, sliced or grated coconut and large dried red chilies and is a relished vegetarian curry from Goa.

But other regions in India also make good use of this much neglected fruit. From the region of Bengal ‘Enchorer Dalna’- raw jackfruit curry cooked with potatoes in mustard oil is famed, ‘Chakka Erissery’ from the southern state of Kerala wherein the jackfruit is cooked like a curry along with roasted coconut and spices.

‘Kathal Biryani’ (Jackfruit Biryani) holds a very special place in the minds of the people of Lucknow. Lucknow whose culinary art is boasted about and specialty chefs engaged by the connoisseur Nawabs of Awadh. Though Biryani in parlance is meat cooked with aromatic spices and rice. But in Lucknow an innovative version of the Biryani was introduced for the vegetarian masses. As the jackfruit is quite a fibrous fruit, when in raw stage it is selected, cut into appropriate chunks, marinated and cooked in with rice like a Biryani. Yet another famous dish is Kathal ki Macchli to satiate the vegetarian palate raw jackfruit is sliced and after application of spices it is fried in oil and truly feels like biting into a fish fillet!

Tracing Jackfruit’s history in India’s culinary history, a collection of at least fifteen jackfruit recipes have been documented in book called ‘Soopa Shastraa’ during the Jain rule in the southern state of Karnataka in the late 15th century. Yet another later day collection,’ Nimatnama’ (cook book) of the Sultans of Mandu also has jackfruit recipes, using more of ripe form rather than raw jackfruit. Today green jackfruit has even become popular abroad as a vegan meat substitute but the practice actually started in India. Probably the fiber-rich texture, non-interfering taste and cuts could be one of the reasons why often jackfruit is considered a non-vegetarian delight for the vegetarians.

One might get confuse jackfruit with breadfruit, which grows along the Western coast of India. Breadfruit appears quite like a jackfruit but is much smaller in size though has a similar bumpy green skin. The breadfruit is believed to be introduced in India during the colonial era. When baked the fruit appears like bread and has a soft cream like texture.

‘Saijan’ is another tree that produces edible flowers which are cooked as a sour tasting vegetable mostly relished in the state of Punjab and these flowers are also mixed raw with yogurt with a bit of seasoning to make delectable ‘raita’. The most sought after from this tree are the drumstick pods which grow quite easily without much effort and are a great source of vitamins and minerals and keep the bones strong. Drumstick curries from different regions of India are amazing so are the soups made from these, which help in eliminating weakness, fatigue and boost immunity. The drumsticks are the essential part of the South Indian Sambhar curry and are chewed to extract all its good immunity boosting qualities.

In general, when one thinks of trees in terms of food, it is fruits or nuts, but jackfruit, breadfruit and drumsticks are a reminder that they have vegetable value too. Most vegetables are grown annually and have to be planted again and again in every season and then nurtured to get the vegetables, but these tress only need to be planted and tended in their initial stages when growing, and after they have grown, they are good to go for several years without any special care. Apart from having food value they prevent soil erosion, give shade to other beings like birds and insects and also provide timber.

Likewise there are several trees in India which need to be given attention to; one such is called ‘Gunda’ or ‘Lasoda’, the name comes probably because it has a sticky texture like gum or glue. The English name for it is ‘Gum-Berries’ which are useful for making pickles and curries.

Another tree is Mahuwa – Mahuwa tree is mostly found in Central and Eastern parts of India and produces very aromatic flowers, the flowers are collected by many local tribes to ferment and further distilled to make county liquor. Fresh flowers which fall off the tree are collected and squeezed and the nectar thus collected is used in making sweet dishes as a natural sweetener. The flowers after drying and crushing are used as flour for making breads and after the flowering season it produces fruits which are collected and a dry vegetable preparation is made out of these. The oil from the seeds is edible too and is like a butter often used by local tribes, who dwell in forests and mainly depend on Mahuwa trees for many of their food needs.

Goolar or cluster figs are another example of food tree. These days nobody eats goolar except for birds. But these nutrition filled sweet fruits are unmindfully trodden down. When in its unripe state they could be used for several vegetable preparations, pickles even a patty like preparation along with lentils called ‘Goolar ke Kebab’ were relished at one time. After they ripen they too get sweet but the only drawback is that the fruit is infested with tiny insects which need to be gotten rid off before consumption.

‘Chaya’ or tree-spinach is a fat growing shrub, said to have its origin in Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. The leaves have stinging hair which are not edible raw as it releases cyanides. These are thus consumed after they are cooked well. The vegetable humming bird tree called ‘Agastaya’ has edible leaves too which are edible and have even been used for therapeutic purposes.

Well the good thing is that there are many zealous individuals, now growing and promoting traditional sustainable foods. One needs to bear in mind that the leaves that grow on trees may not always be edible; they may at times have high cellulose content which is unfit for human digestion system or contain poisonous substances or may have insects or larva clinging to them.

Planting trees is always a good idea; the returns are far more than the efforts put in planting them especially with the Covid-19 lock down, many people are now encouraged to have kitchen gardens, terrace gardens and vertical gardens, not just for now but in a world where such pandemics can extend for months or any such eventuality that may require us to be self-reliant and not at all a bad idea. The fruits from one’s own gardens are the sweetest, even if they aren’t.  Let not this enthusiasm of planting food producing plants and trees decline even when food supplies are in abundance.