Eating the Wilderness

Food Issue 197 Apr, 2018
Text by Sushma Joshi


Eating weeds, while something of a pastime in childhood, never occurred to me as a particularly good idea. Perhaps it was my Brahmin childhood, where food was strictly prepared and served, with nothing other than the prescribed ingredients going into the cooking vessels. Curiosity is stronger than tradition, however, and on the day when I saw a roughly dressed woman from the hills selling a pile of unknown greens near the Chabahil Ganesthan Temple, besides a pile of freshly-picked stinging nettles, I took out my twenty rupees and bought them. Partly, it was the American notion that I should support local farmers (or, in her case, local foragers), but also partly, I wanted to know what those greens tasted like.

I asked her what it was and she told me it was sim saag, and oh yes, it had incredible medicinal properties and would zap all diseases right out of my body. From her enthusiastic description, I could tell the saag was highly prized. To the person who knew its value, it was obviously a good deal. She tucked her twenty rupees into the patuka around her waist, and I went home with my polythene bag full of unknown greens, both equally delighted with the transaction.

My mother made a face when she saw them—she didn’t eat wild greens, she said, but my grandmother used to love them. I wasn’t going to let my mother dampen my enthusiasm, however, so I prepared the greens and ate them that evening. I fell into a very deep and refreshing sleep, and when I woke up in the morning I felt as if my heart was beating and my blood was circulating in a way I had never felt before. A deep sense of relaxation had seeped into my bones.

Later, looking it up on the web, I found out sim saag was another name for watercress, which grows near flowing water. The all-knowing mind of the World Wide Web told me that Hippocrates, the Greek doctor who paved the way for modern medicine and created the Hippocratic Oath, also thought watercress cured all diseases, just like my elderly forager. It often occurs to me that wisdom re-occurs in time and space—clearly the forager would never have heard of Hippocrates, but they’d come to the same conclusion after careful observation and the same lived experience. These “coincidences” always delight me, if only because they confirm that wisdom is not the sole provenance of those who are able to make a mark on the world’s intellectual and philosophical circuits. Hippocrates planned to build a sanatorium for sick people who could be fed on watercress soup, which he intended to grow on the flowing waters of the river close to this institution. Later, as I bought more sim saag, I would see the minute snails clustered on the plant, and come to learn they harbored a parasite that could cause a serious liver disease. So there was a reason people didn’t eat these greens. Something told me, however, that cleaning the plants carefully, and then cooking them in a pressure cooker, was probably a good way to kill any stray nematode with evil designs on the liver.

My grandmother, who was famed for her culinary abilities, apparently loved everything that bourgeois women shouldn’t eat. There was the perilla seeds which I brought home one day and which my mother said was a favorite of my grandmother. A young cook who I hired later confirmed that too much enthusiastic eating of the nutty silam seeds could give one diarrhea, which may be a reason why people stay away from it. I found putting some on top of local Nepali coffee, however, made a great topping.

Then, there was the river seaweed that I found in the organic store one day which my mother identified as a favorite of my great-grandmother. The river seaweed was fried in mustard oil and eaten with chiura, my mother said, and it was savored as a wonderful afternoon khaja delicacy. Seaweed, I thought, was a delicacy just of people like the Japanese who lived surrounded by the sea—but no, women in every area have always known these strips of vivid green matter that grew around water contained great nutrition and taste. I followed my mother’s recipe and discovered it tasted gourmet. Sadly, however, the organic store closed down, and I never saw the strips of river seaweed again.

My great-grandmother and my grandmother raised large families, and they did so not just from big vats of rice and daal, but also these smaller seasonal foraged goods. They knew how to find the micro-nutrients in the local delicacies around them, and I was determined not to let my mother’s pervasive sense of negative dismissal get in the way of finding these forgotten recipes out. Of course, there is a reason why people don’t eat wild herbs—they can often be toxic. Learning to prepare them the right way is often key. Fiddlehead ferns are often available in my vegetable market, but eating too much of them has taught me a valuable lesson—moderation is key. Fiddlehead ferns, I learnt, had to be cooked the right way to be edible—boiling it first seemed to get rid of most of its toxins, but that also means it tastes less crisp than if it is sautéed without boiling. Cooking it correctly, and for long enough, may often be the factor between a pleasant, often gourmet, wild edible, and a day and night spent in major discomfort, wondering if the toxins in the fern are enough to kill you or damage your organs.

This toxicity can be deadly, especially when foraging for wild mushrooms, which I never do—recently I heard a sad story that a Sherpa friend of mine, who had moved to the States sometimes in the 90s, had damaged his kidneys and was now on dialysis after eating wild mushrooms that he didn’t correctly identify. Perhaps this was the reason why Brahmins never ate mushrooms—bahun lay chau khaos na swad paos (How would a Brahmin know what a mushroom tastes like, because they never eat it?) goes the old saying. This may also be the reason why my parents reject the luscious slices of shitake mushrooms which I make for them in season—even something tried and tested like shitake is often viewed with suspicion by the old generation who grew up not eating any. My father also views rosemary, thyme, and oregano with suspicion, thinking they cause harm—he may be partially correct, because it appears that those who take blood thinners may face side effects from these life-giving herbs. Sadly, invasive procedures for the heart are now routinely performed, putting people on lifelong medications like blood thinners, which can greatly limit the healthy herbs they can eat.

A young cook who I had hired often laughed at me when I told her to prepare watercress: “In Kathmandu, people eat all kinds of grass. In our village, we only feed grass to the cows.” Perhaps urban life forces people to seek out wilderness because they see how precious it is, how quickly lost, how life-giving and life-sustaining. The same young woman would also tell me that there’s nothing in her village—nothing! Nothing grows there, no vegetables, no grains (except corn), no goats, etc. There were no butchers to provide meat, or dairies to provide milk, as in Kathmandu. Which is why she wanted her in-laws to join her in the city, but they were determined to stay in the village. I would then ask her, “But do you have chayote (eskoosh)?” And then she would say, “Oh yes, that grows all over the village, but we never eat the shoots or the roots like you do here. That’s only for the cows.” Like her, I’d never tasted chayote shoots, until a year ago when my Newar physiotherapist assured me it tasted out of this world. One day, I noticed a bunch being sold by a humble farmer who had spread out her wares on a cloth underneath a temple roof. I bought it and ate it—and it was out of this world. It amazes me that we grew chayote ever since I can remember, but somehow we never ate those amazing shoots. We did eat pumpkin shoots, from a plant that appears very similar, so why didn’t we eat the chayote shoots? These gaps and omissions, of why some elements of food are permissible and some are not, always baffles me. My cook’s father-in-law is almost always ill, and has to be brought down to Kathmandu every once in a while to get oxygen and saline drips from the hospital. In the photographs, he looks undernourished and on the edge of starvation. This often makes me wonder, do traditional views about food curtail and restrict the cornucopia which nature has provided us? Do we starve in the midst of plenty? Would a more trusting relationship with the wilderness open up vistas of food we’d never seen before?

After my earthquake injury, I was unable to take care of my house and garden, which meant weeds three feet high effectively covered my lawn for a few years. The yellow flowers of dandelion matured and flew away in the breeze big balls of white fluff. Later, I found out I could have made a large amount of dandelion syrup from those yellow flowers. This spring, once more able to walk on my two feet, I turn the compost with a spade every week and find those luscious green leaves just springing out of the earth. My dog, nosing around with her pre-historical wolf tendencies, digs the earth and alters the contours of the landscape, forcing me to see things I hadn’t seen before. Dandelion leaves, I learn, are loaded with vitamin K, which help to strengthen the bones. They can also dissolve gallstones. Each morning I go out and pick a few leaves, and munch them before the dew has dried. One morning, after eating a few leaves for a breakfast salad—with a locally grown Spanish olive oil which my friend’s mother gave me, and a drop or two of apple cider vinegar—I walked all the way from Lazimpat to Handigaon, feeling strength gather in my bones, forgetting all about the pain in my broken ankle.