Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 2 July 2020

The forgotten fruit and vegetables of South India: from elephant yams to lotus stem

Akash Muralidharan discovered about 70 pieces of produce available within Chennai that were becoming increasingly absent from people’s plates

Food designer Akash Muralidharan started his 'Cook and See' project, which explores the histories of forgotten vegetables in South India, in March. Artwork by Srishti P Via @akash_muralidaran / Instagram
Food designer Akash Muralidharan started his 'Cook and See' project, which explores the histories of forgotten vegetables in South India, in March. Artwork by Srishti P Via @akash_muralidaran / Instagram

Elephant yams, sunberry, lotus stem, red okra – these are some of South India’s forgotten fruit and vegetables.

Food designer Akash Muralidharan, 25, wants to bring back the local produce disappearing from everyday dishes in South Indian homes.

In March, Muralidharan, who lives in Chennai, created the 100-day project named Cook and See to help boost the revival of the unsung vegetables.

The idea came to him after stumbling across his grandmother’s copy of the well-known recipe book Samaithu Paar by S Meenakshi Ammal, which lists names of vegetables that Muralidharan had never heard of.

“These hundred days will help me gain the perspective of the house cook who decides the meal to be served in the house, and the challenges faced by them in acquiring and cooking with these vegetables,” he wrote on Instagram at the start of the challenge.

To prepare for his project, he sent out a survey to neighbours within his apartment complex to find out which vegetables they commonly use, and which have gone missing from their household menus. While crops such as tomato, potato, carrots and eggplants were the most commonly cited; gourd, yams and plantains hardly featured.

Muralidharan, who studied food design and innovation in Milan, prepared daily meals with his mother using the forgotten produce, and shared clips of them cooking on his Instagram. He does not always share the full recipes, and instead explains the origins of each crop and how histories of trade have formed cuisine in parts of South Asia.

Take for example the papaya, a native plant from Mexico and Central America that made its way to the Philippines through colonisation and eventually to India and Italy through trade. In places such as Thailand and Vietnam, the green papaya is used in salads, while in India, it is cooked in stews and stir fry dishes.

There’s also the moringa flower from the sub-Himalayan areas, which is even used in traditional medicine to help with inflammation, and the wild turnip from Europe that was used in India for its oil-bearing seeds.

He often finds these fruits and vegetables in local markets. He initially planned to venture to nearby villages to find heritage vegetables, but the coronavirus lockdown has made travel difficult. So he became more resourceful – shopping from produce trucks that entered his neighourbood, online grocery delivery, foraging with friends in backyards and reaching out to those with kitchen gardens who were growing the ingredients he needed.

By the end of his project in mid-June, Muralidharan discovered about 70 vegetables available within Chennai that were becoming increasingly absent from people’s plates.

His previous projects have also explored the connections between food, history and human behaviour. In January, Muralidharan was in Dubai for Alserkal Avenue’s Quoz Arts Fest, where he teamed up with artist collective the Centre for Genomic Gastronomy, to present New National Dish: UAE. The exhibition looked at alternative futures for food in the UAE, taking into consideration sustainability and the impact of climate change on agriculture.

On the 100th day of his latest project, Muralidharan stated his intention to continue Cook and See’s aim to help heritage vegetables and locally grown crops make a comeback.

“This is not the end of ‘Cook and See’,” he wrote on social media. “The challenge may have come to an end, but this is just the beginning to more campaigns and research to bring back these vegetables to our plate. To new beginnings and new challenges.”

Some of the forgotten vegetables

Elephant yam

"Elephant foot yam or whitespot giant arum is a tropical tuber crop grown primarily in Africa, South Asia, South-east Asia and the tropical Pacific Islands.

"It is now believed that elephant foot yams originated from South-east Asia and spread westwards into Thailand and India... The elephant foot yam is widely used in Indian medicine and is recommended as a remedy in all three of the major Indian medicinal systems: ayurveda, siddha and unani.

"In Southern India, especially Kerala, it is known as chena, and the tuber has been a part of people's diet for centuries. In Tamil, it is called chenaikkizangu. It is mainly served as steamed pieces along with traditional chutney made of green chilli, coconut oil, shallots and garlic."

Palmyra sprout

"Palmyra sprout (also known as Palmyra tuber) is an underground sprout of the Palmyra palm or Borassus flabellifer. It can be dried or boiled to form odiyal, a hard chewable snack. In the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Bihar, and in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, the seeds are planted and made to germinate and the fleshy stems (below the surface) are boiled or roasted and eaten. It is very fibrous and nutritious.

"The white kernel of the ripe palm fruit, after being left for a few months, is used as an offering in Lakshmi Puja in various parts of Bengal and is also eaten raw."

Turkey berry

Solanum torvum or the Turkey berry is known by several names: brihati marathi marang in Sanskrit, bhurat, bhankatiya in Hindi, sundakkai and chundakkai in Tamil. Slightly bitter, the berries have a peculiar taste, which one gradually gets accustomed to. The plant is said to have originated from Central and South America and has spread throughout the tropics and subtropics.

"The berries grow in clusters and are slightly smaller in size than cherries. They have a nice green colour when picked for use, but are difficult to consume at this stage as they taste extremely bitter. But there are several ways to cook these fresh berries.

For instance, to make vathal, the berries are washed thoroughly and then crushed slightly: berries with literally half-open mouths. They are then soaked in sour butter milk, which helps reduce the bitterness of the berries, and are then dried in the sun. Most South Indian shops stock the sun-dried berries, popularly called sundakkai vathal."

Lotus stem

"Lotus root, botanically classified as Nelumbo nucifera, is the underwater rhizome of an aquatic, perennial plant and is a member of the Nelumbonaceae family. Also known as lotus stem, it is a root vegetable from India and China, used widely in Indian, Chinese and Japanese food. They are the edible parts of the lotus flower, which is found underwater. It is usually crunchy and is fairly sweet and has a flavour like water chestnut.

"Lotus root is native to Asia and is believed to have been used in culinary applications and medicinal remedies for thousands of years. The plant was then transported along trade routes and introduced to ancient Egypt in the 6th century BCE. Ancient Egypt was one of the first recorded civilizations that revered the Lotus outside of Asia, and the flower became a symbol of rebirth, fertility, and purity. Today the Lotus plant can be found in bodies of water around the world, but is grown primarily in China, Japan, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines."

Updated: June 21, 2020 05:50 PM

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