Recently, i saw a few maids plucking the leaves from a branch of a moringa tree near my house. I was a bit hesitant to interfere, but was curious about what they planned to do with the leaves. “We eat them,” they replied shyly. A do-gooder cable operator who was passing by stopped to listen to the conversation. He enquired further in Odia and told me that the leaves were a common food in rural areas. I asked the maids if they could share a few leaves, and they happily agreed. Since that day, my stock has gone up among the maids as they now identify me as someone who has a good understanding of food.
At home, childhood memories came flooding back. There used to be a beautiful moringa tree, with the juiciest of drumsticks, growing in our neighbour’s backyard. My mother would occasionally reach out of the window and pluck the leaves to make delicious sambar and curries. As a three-year-old, I was impressed. Moringa was the only food that was grown at home, while all other fruits and vegetables were bought from the market. I still thank my mother for inculcating in me the love for the tree through her delicious recipes.
Moringa leaves are known by different names—murungaielai in Tamil, munagachettu in Telugu, sahjan in Hindi, soijan in Bihar or drumstick in English. Raw leaves taste bitter, but the bitterness disappears on cooking. The leaves cook in just a few minutes and retain their bright green colour, which makes any moringa dish very appealing.
While the leaves are eaten in all parts of the country, they are popular in villages. In cities, they are considered infra dig. Neither the tree finds a place in manicured lawns nor do the leaves find a place of pride among the greens. Moringa is a superfood with plenty of health benefits. Its curative properties are well documented in ayurvedic texts. It is said to be used in over 300 ayurvedic compositions. According to the Nutritive Value of Indian Foods by C Gopalan, moringa leaves have seven times the vitamin C found in oranges, four times the vitamin A of carrots, four times the calcium of milk, three times the potassium of bananas and twice the protein of yogurt. Moringa can also cure anaemia in children.
In Africa, people consume moringa leaves to prevent malnutrition. During 1997-98, a test was conducted in Senegal to examine the ability of moringa leaf powder to cure malnutrition in children and pregnant or breast-feeding women. The results showed that children who consumed the leaf powder maintained or increased their weight and improved overall health, while pregnant women delivered babies with higher birth weight and also recovered from anaemia.
In India, moringa leaves are not popular as a marketable commodity. Plantation owners sell only the phalli or drumstick. Balasaheb Marale, a drumstick plantation farmer from Maharashtra who I came across online, says, “The leaves grow in abundance. They are a rich source of calcium, but they dry very fast. So it is not lucrative to sell them in the market.” He adds that none of the plantations in Maharashtra and Gujarat give a second thought to the copious amount of healthy leaves the tree produces.
My father, who has a good knowledge of the lesser known uses of plants and vegetables, says another reason for the leaves not being sold in the market is the brittle nature of the tree, which makes climbing and plucking the leaves difficult.
Moringa leaves can be used in interesting ways. They can be used as a substitute for palak (spinach) or methi leaves. The leaves are not only used in Indian cooking, chefs abroad have also discovered the use of moringa leaves to enhance the taste of Western recipes such as pizza, omelette, quiche and meatloaf, to name a few. Although dried moringa leaves are sold online, these cannot compensate for the delicious green curry of freshly cooked leaves.
Chitra Balasubramaniam is a freelance features writer in Delhi. Among other things, she writes on unusual food
|R E C I P E S
Murunga elai sambar
- A handful of cleaned moringa leaves
- A small ball of lemon-sized tamarind or readymade tamarind paste
- 1 cup boiled arhar dal
- A small piece of asafoetida or hing
- 1 teaspoon sambar powder
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 tablespoon rice flour, optional
- 1 teaspoon oil
- Mustard seeds for seasoning
- Salt to taste
- Curry leaves, optional
Extract the tamarind juice. Add turmeric, hing, sambar powder and salt. Boil the mixture till the smell of tamarind is gone. Add moringa leaves and cook for some time. Mash the boiled dal and add it to the sambar. Rice flour can be added to thicken the consistency. Once the liquid starts to boil, take it off the flame. To prepare the tadka, heat oil and add the mustard seeds. Once they start to crackle, pour the tadka into the sambar.
Moringa leaf bhaji
- Moringa leaves
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 a tomato, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon ginger-garlic paste
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder
- Garam masala to taste
- Salt to taste
- 2-3 tablespoon oil
Heat oil in a wok. Add onion, tomato and ginger-garlic paste and fry well. Add the other spices and mix well. Add the moringa leaves and continue to fry. The leaves are cooked in a couple of minutes. Can be served with rice or roti.
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