Nutrient-Packed Native Fruit,Vegetables Have All But Disappeared From Our Food Basket

We were visiting the sites in Kamrup district in Assam where the Cen­tre for Microfinance and Livelihoods was implementing a project to enhance tribal livelihoods. We were in the backyard of a Rabha tribal family. Mango, Assam lemon plants and pepper creepers on areca nut trees were being promoted.

In the yard, I spotted a number of yellow-red fruits lying on the ground. When I enquired, they brought a raw, green fruit. It was very tasty, with a mild sweet-and-sour taste. I had nev­er seen it before. Locally called kor­dir, this fruit is formally known as star fruit, I was told.

My erudite companion Jahar Saha, former director of IIM Ahmed­abad, told me that it was known as kamranga in Kolkata and he loved it, but it was not often available. He said he paid Rs 60 a dozen when he got it. And here it was rotting in the mud in the Rabha backyard.

I asked why is it not sold and got the typical answer one hears in As­sam and North East – the fruit had a short shelf life and transport was so difficult that traders thought it could not be profitably sold and so there was no market for it.

I remembered my colleague pilot­ing a small project a few years earlier for giving saplings of bahunia plant (also called kachnar) to tribal fami­lies in Central India. It seems that this plant grows as a large trees and the tree gets new leaves in summer. Young leaves make an excellent veg­etable and one day I suddenly saw the bahunia leaves (known also as kachnar) in the local market in Gum­la town in Jharkhand.

Still several years earlier, roam­ing in tribal farms in the then Bha­ruch district in Gujarat, I had seen and enquired about bright red leaves of a shrub growing on its own in the cotton or tuwar plots of farmers. Upon enquiry, it turned out to be am­badi (or roselle) and it occurred to me how my mother used to make and we all relished a preparation of ambadi mixed with chickpea dough and gar­nished with garlic, to be eaten with jowar bhakri.

Lost treasures

All this is strictly in the past tense as the cities I subsequently lived in seldom offered leafy vegetables other than spinach or fenugreek. Thoughts of ambadi had then reminded me of tarota (cassia tora), a prolific shrub that grew in monsoon all round our home in Amravati city in Vidarbha and which was picked by our maid to go cook its leaves as a vegetable.

Thinking on these matters, my mind turned to my interaction in the late nineties with a gentle­man from Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra. He came to seek my advice and help on a project about ghyapat (agave). He told me that ghyapat grew in abundance in the arid wastelands in the rain-shadow areas of central Maharashtra.

I did not follow what he meant, so he showed me photographs and I immediately recognised these broad and long leaf shrubs, which form boundaries of farms in many rural areas in central India. He said that traditionally the fibers of the leaves were used for making ropes, which were used by villages in their daily lives. Replaced now by nylon ropes, the market for these had crashed and so had the livelihoods connect­ed with it.

Ghyapat grows wild in the arid and warm desertifying lands in much of Marathwada and adjoining Telan­gana and Karnataka. He wanted to cultivate it, install shredding ma­chines and make a business out of it. He wanted to access a big grant from a foreign donor.

I later discovered that his balance sheet was small and he did not have registration to get overseas funds so getting that foreign grant was out of the question. Subsequently, the proj­ect, topic and the name of the plant dropped from my memory. I learn that sweeteners and even wine can be made from extracts of these leaves, aside from rope, for which the small in­dustry corporation in the then Andhra Pradesh had prepared a project.

Going out of use

If a city-dwelling Anglophone like me can cite five examples of trees and plants that have great uses and applications once but have dropped out of attention, clearly there are many more. When one searches in­formation on them, one sees that many of them, for example bahunia, has high nutrient content or have strong medicinal value. And yet they are going out of usage.

Why are they vanishing from our lives, our tables and our food basket? Can they be revived and brought to their pristine positions? I can only speculate about why such plants and their uses are falling into obscurity.

Populations of some of these plants are becoming rare perhaps because of loss of habitat. Amravati was not a thickly populated brick and mortar jungle when I was a child and there were plenty of open spaces. Things have changed now. The plant tarota has perhaps lost its habitat.

Some plants are still seen but in reduced number due to pressure on common lands from grazing, encroachment and diversification in uses. The population of other plants such as bahunia is perhaps not keeping pace with the massive growth in human population and hence the availability of their pro­duce has declined.

In some cases, such as ambadi and kamranga, no effort has gone in to convert them from naturally oc­curring plants to cultivated ones. Perhaps efforts to understand their agronomy and make their planting materials available have simply not happened. Plants like agave, which occur in abundance, still have sim­ply not been exploited in a manner that fetches good value to those who would grow or harvest them.

Not in vogue?

Perhaps these plants are becom­ing victims of commercialisation of certain vegetable produce like cauli­flower, cabbage, tomato, capsicum, spinach, etc., considered to be appro­priate by the social role models. There­fore, no one takes any interest in what we can claim to be our plants native to this country, and they slowly start go­ing out of use and become scarce.

Is this an inevitable situation or one that needs to be and can be re­versed? Aside from treating them as quaint curios and writing occasional pieces about these, what can be done about them?

My friend Late Madhukar Dhas told me once that he had organised a competition in Yeotmal in Maharash­tra for uncommon vegetable prepara­tions based on plants that occur natu­rally but are becoming scarce, and there were 61 distinct entries!

If organisers of events where large gathering of people come show cased and offered dishes from these food ingredients, would it create a de­mand? If along with Spanish, Irish or Mexican food festivals, if star hotel chains offered festivals of vanishing Indian dishes, would it boost them and lead to their larger scale produc­tion and use?

This article first appeared on Village Square.


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