Food

Superfoods on the Sidewalk: A Guide to Foraging in Cities

There's tasty, healthy and eco-friendly food growing all around us, even in concrete jungles. All you need to do is pluck.
September 3, 2020, 11:05am
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Photo courtesy of Beth Jnr / Unsplash

My neighbourhood in Delhi, India’s capital city, offered a surprising treat during the pandemic—pavements and parking lots began to resemble a supermarket shelf bursting with greens. Perhaps, that was just another manifestation of nature “healing” during the lockdown or maybe it was the deserted streets and negligible traffic that allowed me to notice what had always been there.

Most people might dismiss these plants as mere weeds, an insignificant part of the urban backdrop. But these greens are not only superfoods that would command a premium in artisanal groceries, but also delicious and versatile. Right in front of my house, a small patch has amaranth, purslane and wood sorrel, which I have used in stir-fries, salads, smoothies, pickles, soups and as a garnish.

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Amaranth growing along Ring Road, Delhi. Photo: Syed Saad Ahmed

The spare time the lockdown offers and uncertainty about the future and food supply have spurred interest in foraging—practised by indigenous communities across the world. “I used to conduct edible weed walks before the pandemic,” Auroville-based ecologist Nina Sengupta tells VICE. “There was a lot of interest, participants were enthusiastic, but it largely remained an intellectual exercise. After the lockdown, however, people have started using the knowledge they had gathered, experimenting with recipes and seeking out new plants. I have been getting a lot of queries about what a certain plant is, whether it’s edible and how to incorporate it in meals.” In June 2020, Sengupta began a YouTube channel, Edible Weed Walk, where she posts video and audio foraging guides.

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Nina Sengupta conducting an edible weed walk. Photo: Anandi Zhang

While many associate foraging with the countryside, “there is remarkable biodiversity in cities too,” says activist Shruti Tharayil. “I am in a village in Kerala during the lockdown, but I started foraging when I was living in a city.” Her initiative Forgotten Greens seeks to reclaim and revive the age-old practice of foraging for wild greens and edible plants.

But how does one know which weeds are edible? Sengupta has some good tips to offer: “A basic principle of foraging is that you eat what you recognise—otherwise, you could get into trouble. In traditional vegetable markets in cities, you will often find elderly women selling wild greens on the fringes or footpaths outside. They usually forage for themselves and sell the extra produce in small bunches. You can visit these to identify and taste the common edible weeds in your region before you start foraging.”

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The best places to forage in cities are at the edges of gardens and in vacant plots, especially after it rains. “In public parks, gardeners generally don’t use pesticides and herbicides, though it’s best to confirm that,” says Sengupta. “You should avoid eating plants growing along gutters and busy roads because some edible weeds, such as those of the Amaranthus genus, absorb heavy metals from the soil. These places, however, are excellent to observe wild greens and collect seeds.”

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Edible weeds growing along Ring Road, Delhi. Photo: Syed Saad Ahmed

Certain edible greens can be dangerous in large quantities or for those with specific medical conditions, so research is vital. There are many resources—apps to identify plants, guides, social media accounts and even colouring books—to help the novice forager.

Foraging is also an easier alternative to growing your own food. While I embraced my millennialhood and blossomed into a plant parent years ago, I am no good at cultivating edibles. My achievements include tomatoes as big as grapes and a chilli plant that tempts me with flower showers, but has produced only six fruits in two years. I gave up on those attempts once I discovered that I could have my weed and eat it too. The very qualities that make weeds a nuisance for farmers and gardeners—their profusion, persistence and adaptability to different growing conditions—are a blessing for foragers.

While there is research on the impact of gardening and green spaces on mental health, no comparable studies have been done on the benefits of foraging. “In my seminars and presentations, I ask people to imagine a place where they would like to be if they had no restrictions,” says Sengupta. “The answer invariably is somewhere in nature.” For city-dwellers who might not have access to a garden or green spaces, foraging provides an opportunity to connect with nature and seasonal cycles. Personally, spotting a new patch of wild greens in my neighbourhood or coming across a plant that could potentially be edible provides an element of novelty that is hard to come by in these locked-down times.

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As the pandemic makes starker the impact of human activities on the environment, some emphasise how foraging has helped them adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. “My life journey has been about reclaiming autonomy,” says Tharayil. “I don’t want to be dependent solely on the market, so I try to localise and decolonise my food through foraging. It has reduced my food miles and carbon footprint.”

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Shruti Tharayil (left) foraging

Kamana Gautam, a Hyderabad-based nutritionist, describes foraging as a “liberating” experience: “When we don’t know about the food growing around us, we think that only the greens wrapped in plastic in a market are edible,” she says. “It was liberating to know that the plants I was stepping on were more nutritious than what I was buying at stores. I see people posting about kale and other non-native greens assuming that they are healthier. But here you have organic food fresher than something imported from across the world. Besides, it’s completely free and does not use up any resources.”

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Purslane (bottom left), amaranth and Commelina benghalensis (bottom centre) are easy to find in Indian cities. Photo: Syed Saad Ahmed

I had a similar epiphany a month ago. It began with a craving for pesto, but I could not find sweet basil. One day, I came across a bright patch of wood sorrel, seemingly untouched by the ubiquitous garnishing of chewed-up paan. As I bent down for a closer look, a sweet, pungent smell assailed me. I immediately recognised it as basil, but the plant it was coming from seemed different. It did, however, have the flower patterns of tulsi (or holy basil), which belongs to the same family as sweet basil. While I could not identify it (nor could the plant apps), it tasted spicier and more bitter than sweet basil, though not as overpowering as tulsi. And that’s how I ended up dipping toast in a kind of a delicious pesto when I least expected it. As Foraging Gump would have said, “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

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