Your weed, my green

One per­son's weed can be another per­son's green


Plants like the com­mon mal­low, which are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered weeds, can also be used as food and add va­ri­ety to your diet

NA­TURE THRIVES where you least ex­pect it—in aban­doned yards and over­grown ditches and in-be­tween cracks in pave­ments. So do not be sur­prised if you find a va­ri­ety of ed­i­ble plants grow­ing in the city, some wild and oth­ers that have es­caped from gar­dens or trash. Some of these weeds are rich in nu­tri­ents and you would do well by adding those to your salad mix. Of course, one should not eat all that are ed­i­ble. Herbs with medic­i­nal prop­er­ties can­not be called food. Soil tox­i­c­ity should be con­sid­ered while se­lect­ing for­ag­ing sites. But there are plants that can be a source of sea­sonal dishes and add di­ver­sity to your food if you learn to iden­tify them.

The older gen­er­a­tion, who had a closer re­la­tion with their food, is aware of the culi­nary use and health ben­e­fits of these greens. When the city was a town and there were open spa­ces, ev­ery home had a small gar­den. I was lucky to grow up in an in­sti­tu­tional cam­pus in Delhi where my fa­ther kept a kitchen gar­den. Along with veg­eta­bles, he would grow wild greens that are to­day looked down upon as weeds. Wild ama­ranth (a species of Amaran­thus), wild purslane (Por­tu­laca ol­er­acea) and sev­eral other ubiq­ui­tous weeds were reg­u­larly cooked in our kitchen. They still are.

Ear­lier this year, a so­cio-cul­tural move­ment called Delhi, I Love You or­gan­ised an ur­ban for­ag­ing walk in the Lodhi Gar­dens to make peo­ple aware of wild ed­i­bles. It was a guided ex­pe­ri­ence fol­lowed by a tast­ing of the for­aged har­vest. Of late, the concept has caught the fancy of celebrity chefs world­wide. Alas, field guides for iden­ti­fy­ing wild ed­i­ble plants in In­dian cities are yet to be writ­ten. The in­ter­net-savvy among us can, how­ever, ac­cess a col­lab­o­ra­tive map of ur­ban lo­ca­tions on where one can for­age for food. Of course, very few peo­ple from In­dia have joined the por­tal so far.

So go out and scour your neigh­bour­hood to find some in­ter­est­ing plants to eat. While ur­ban for­ag­ing is not go­ing to mit­i­gate hunger, it can surely bring di­ver­sity to our food bas­ket and get us closer to na­ture.

One such easy-to-iden­tify de­li­cious green is com­mon mal­low (Malva sylvestris). I first spot­ted a gi­ant patch of it in a ditch in­side Delhi’s Pu­rana Quila. Known as sanna bindige gida in Kan­nada, gur­chanti in Hindi and sotchal in Kash­miri, the com­mon mal­low can be found all over the world. It is happy to take over ar­eas where soil has been dis­turbed. It can be found in va­cant lots, by road­sides or cul­ti­vated fields, in clay or loam, and in full sun or par­tial shade. It is tol­er­ant to drought and is recog­nised as an im­por­tant famine crop.

A cure-all

Al­most all parts of the com­mon mal­low are eaten and its culi­nary use has been known for over 3,000 years. It has also en­joyed the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing a cure-all through­out his­tory. Ro­man nat­u­ral­ist Pliny the El­der, in his first cen­tury en­cy­clopae­dia Nat­u­ral His­tory, rec­om­mends daily con­sump­tion of mal­low juice to pre­vent ill­nesses. It was widely be­lieved “to sooth what­ever ails you” in the 16th cen­tury Europe, and was a pop­u­lar veg­etable in pre-Han dy­nasty China. Na­tive Amer­i­cans use it to treat sore throat and ton­sil­li­tis, and to fa­cil­i­tate labour.

Mod­ern re­search has iden­ti­fied what makes mal­low a panacea of sorts. The plant is loaded with polysac­cha­rides that help im­prove the im­mune sys­tem and an­tiox­i­dants which de­lay cell dam­age. Its leaves are a good source of vi­ta­mins A, B1, B2, C and E as well as cal­cium, mag­ne­sium, potas­sium, iron, zinc and se­le­nium. All these make the plant ben­e­fi­cial for preg­nant and lac­tat­ing women. In fact, this as­so­ci­a­tion might be the rea­son com­mon mal­low is re­garded as a veg­etable for women in Kash­mir, and men ad­mit to lik­ing it only in pri­vate. Stud­ies have also es­tab­lished its ef­fi­cacy in re­duc­ing choles­terol and triglyc­eride lev­els, while its an­tiox­i­dant, anti-in­flam­ma­tory and an­ti­cancer prop­er­ties are be­ing ex­plored.

Com­mis­sion E, the ad­vi­sory board in Ger­many that eval­u­ates herbs for med­i­cal pre­scrip­tion, approves mal­low for treat­ing ir­ri­ta­tion of oral and phar­ynx as well as for dry cough. French and Swiss phar­ma­copoeias note the ef­fi­cacy of its flow­ers and im­ma­ture fruits for treat­ing whoop­ing cough. In In­dia, folk and Unani medicines rec­om­mend mal­low for treat­ing skin dis­or­ders and in­juries, par­tic­u­larly le­sions of the mouth and stom­ach ul­cers.

In In­dia, its culi­nary use seems re­stricted to Kash­mir, but it is pop­u­lar in East­ern Mediter­ranean and Ara­bic cuisines. In Turkey and Greece mal­low leaves are used to make dol­mades, an ap­pe­tiser that is typ­i­cally stuffed with rice and meat.

In Is­rael, where the green is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a resur­gence of sorts, it is sautéed in olive oil with chopped onions to make a warm salad. Mal­low leaves can be eaten raw and added to smooth­ies or sal­ads.


Com­mon mal­low with brin­jal

Com­mon mal­low has en­joyed the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing a cure-all through­out his­tory. It is easy to iden­tify and de­li­cious to eat

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