Not given its due
Though it is present everywhere, people tend to miss the superfood kulfa
The Kulfa plant is not given importance despite being a superfood that is abundantly available
LAST SUMMER, I found a kulfa plant growing profusely at the base of a wall near my house. Since it was not likely to escape the mali’s (gardener) weeding hands much longer, I pulled it out and carried it home to cook. When I took out the plant from the paper bag, I found hundreds of rattling seeds that I planted in my garden. Now I have a profusion of plump kulfa available at home to enjoy.
Kulfa (Portulaca oleracea) is native to India and has been a part of Asian and Mediterranean diets for a long time. Mahatma Gandhi is known to have favoured it in his raw food diet. Known by various names— luni bhaji in Uttar Pradesh, nonia in Madhya Pradesh and nunar in Kashmir—this succulent herb with its mildly sour leaves is cultivated and consumed widely across the country. In Greek and Turkish cuisines, it is commonly used in salads and is an important ingredient in fattoush, the colourful salad popular all over the Middle East.
All parts of the plant—leaves, stems, flowers and seeds—are edible. The sour taste in kulfa comes from malic acid, which hi-
des an interesting attribute of this plant. As an adaptation to arid conditions, the plant keeps its stomata closed during the day. It uses the crassulacean acid metabolism or the cam pathway to fix atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) during the night. The leaves trap CO2 and convert it into malic acid. During the day, this malic acid is broken down to provide CO2, which is then converted to glucose. That’s why kulfa harvested in the morning is likely to be more tart—by as much as six times—than that harvested in the afternoon.
Kulfa is, in fact, a wonder plant full of vitamins and micronutrients. It is a rich source of dietary fibre, minerals, and vitamins A, B complex, C and E. The levels of vitamin E and beta carotene found in kulfa are six times more than what is found in spinach or carrots. Just like spinach, kulfa has high levels of oxalates and those sensitive to oxalates or those with kidney stones should avoid consuming it in the raw form. Cooking, however, neutralises the oxalic acid to a large extent. The plant has more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable.
It also has high levels of alpha linoeic acid (ala) as well as eicosapentaenoic acid (epa)—essential fatty acids found only in fish oil and some algae. The human body converts ala to epa, but certain medical conditions, including allergies, limit the human body’s ability to metabolise epa from ala. The trace amounts of epa found in wild kulfa are more than those found in any other known plant-based source, so its significance in vegetarian diets and for diabetics cannot be understated. The high level of potassium found in kulfa aids metabolism and improves digestion. The slight mucilaginous nature of the plant nourishes the skin and the soft tissues in the eyes. A poultice made from the leaves can be applied directly on the skin to soothe bug bites.
The thick, slightly sour leaves of kulfa taste good in salads and can be added to juices. It can be also sautéed or steamed. Kulfa has high amounts of pectin that helps thicken soups and stews. You can eat it raw or cook it lightly to derive the maximum health benefits. Kulfa seeds can also be sprouted and eaten as a microgreen, but for that, the seeds picked from the wild are preferable.
You can gather the seed capsules from the plants late summer when the seeds are maturing, but just before the capsules burst. Store them in a paper bag where they will burst and release the tiny black seeds. These seeds must be planted in soil rich in minerals (and not peat moss) to ensure that the plant too is rich in these minerals.
This common weed grows freely in gardens and even through the cracks of walls. It covers the ground and creates a moist microclimate in gardens and its deep roots make nutrients and moisture available to other plants with shallow roots.
The hardy plant needs little water, which makes it highly drought-tolerant and easy to grow. It belongs to the same genus as the ornamental Portulaca grandiflora grown for its colourful flowers. It is a pity that a plant that should be regarded as a superfood is treated as a weed by many of us, which is evident from the various names given to it—duckweed, fatweed and pigweed. (The author is a practicing landscape architect, an ecological planner
and a food blogger)
Kulfa has more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable. The levels of vitamin E and beta carotene in this plant are six times more than what is found in spinach or carrots and it aids in digestion
The thick, slightly sour leaves of kulfa taste good in daals, salads as well as in juices PHOTOGRAPHS: ANITA TIKOO MATANGE
Kulfa is a companion plant as it covers the ground and creates a moist microclimate