There are some people in my family who, if they had the choice, would eat everything branded, out of a sealed can or bag bought from their favourite grocery outlet. In my reckoning, these kin of mine are suffering from an unhealthy mind-set and missing a culinary adventure with real flavours; provided free of cost by nature. I am met with disapproving looks when I tell them that they can find entire courses growing wild in the hills overlooking the Federal Capital. I am often told by intended guests, on receiving an invitation to sup with me, that I will only be graced by their presence if I do not have anything bizarre on my menu (bizarre, by their definition is anything harvested from the forest around my humble home). Since I find this behaviour anomalous, in a world shifting to organically grown food, I have in this week’s piece, decided to introduce my readers to what they are missing and what they can expect to encounter at my dining room table.
The ladies of my late mother’s generation believed that every spice, vegetable and fruit had its unique chemical effect on the human body. Some of these items were ‘cool’ and others ‘warm’ and nature had synchronized these effects by ensuring that ‘cool’ plants grew in summer and ‘warm’ ones proliferated in winter. I have overtime come to realize that this was not an old wives’ tale, but a botanical fact.
The Margallas are an ideal habitat for wild spinach and their better tasting cousins, known locally as ‘Cholai’ and ‘Mako’. While any one of these will hold their own if cooked alone, they become show stoppers when mixed in the correct ratio (this is a matter of trial and error since the level of individual flavor varies with the host plants and water in the vicinity). The ‘saag’ made from a mixture of both these plants was a favorite at our table and remains so to this day. The ‘Mako’ plant has an added attraction i.e. its small berries. These are produced by clusters of tiny white flowers and gradually turn from a dark green to an almost black deep purple colour. We used to eat these berries raw, wherever we found them and they tasted like sweet tomatoes.
Our house in Lahore had two huge ‘Sohanjna’ or Moringa trees in the compound. They produced dense off white flower clusters, followed by long snake like pods. These flowers were boiled and cooked with heavy quantities of yogurt to produce a dish that was amazingly delicious. The pods were harvested, while still not fully grown and fried or boiled to be eaten as a snack or part of a salad. I have recently discovered a Moringa Tree in the hills (which is an unlikely habitat for the species) and my lunch menu now features this extraordinary harvest in late winters and early spring.
The space under one of the ‘Sohanjna’ trees in our Lahore home was overgrown with a cactus called ‘Kwar Gandal’ that had sword like leaves and produced spikes of reddish flowers. My mother harvested these leaves in winter and spent hours scraping the top layer to produce the pulpy, sticky interior. She then made a ‘halwa’ out of the stuff, mixing it with her own secret recipe of herbs and spices. Jars were then filled and we were allowed not more than one table spoon daily of the delicious concoction. I cannot recall catching a cold or having skin issues as a child, a phenomenon that my grandmother attributed to this cactus, which pharmaceutical and skin care products companies now refer to as Aloe Vera.
An observant trekker into the Margallas may spot a tree along the trail, with green fig like fruit growing in clusters straight from the trunk. This is the ‘Goolar’ tree and the fruit is indeed ‘Goolar’ or a variety of wild fig enormously relished by the monkeys that inhabit the forest. If harvested when ripe, the fruit releases a cloud of miniscule insects. It is said that eating this along with the insects, gives one a permanent 6 x 6 eye sight. My sister takes regular trips into the hills accompanied by me to harvest the fruit, when it is green and un-ripe. Guests at our dinner table are dumbfounded when told that repeated helpings of shami kebabs, they have just ingested are not mutton, but blended ‘Goolars’.
n The writer is a historian.
The ladies of my late mother’s generation believed that every spice, vegetable and fruit had its unique chemical effect on the human body.