Forgotten Food: The Decalepis hamiltonii represents India's bounty of plant wealth, and the challenges facing it

This is the second in a three-part series that chronicles the history of lesser-known regional Indian ingredients and dishes, and highlights their importance in micro cuisines — #ForgottenFood.

Read part one, about the eenthu panna, here.

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“Anything that grows in a forest is a survivor, because it’s growing against the odds and natural elements like the wind and rain. The potency of wild foods of the past stemmed from the fact that they came from wild spaces and not cultivated farms.” To have a conversation with Bengaluru-based naturalist and ecotherapist Ganeshram is to have one’s eyes opened to the willful tenacity of biodiverse ecosystems — each staking its claim to survival.

“Imagine a large plot of land where brahmi is cultivated as a monocrop as opposed to in the wild, where you would have 200 species occupying one square metre. It gets all the nutrition and water it deserves, and becomes a pampered baby.” The consequences of this cocooned state of being, according to Ganeshram, are that the strength of naturally-occurring phytochemicals gets compromised, leading to a loss in the medicinal value.

India bears the distinction of being one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries. This plant wealth, however, comes at a cost as an estimated 90 percent of the species used for traditional plant-based Indian medicines are sourced from wild populations. Roots — such as those of the endangered Decalepis hamiltonii — are the most commonly used plant organ and methods of harvesting can be destructive, often requiring the entire plant to be pulled from the ground.

All photos courtesy plant taxonomist Dr Santhan P

The range of regional names — maredukommulu, nannarikommulu and madinakommulu in Telegu; makali beru in Kannada; mahali kizhangu, makalikkilanku, mavillinga kizhanku and perum-nannari in Tamil; and nannari and naruninti in Malayalam — by which this woody, medicinal, climbing member is known, is testimony to its widespread endemic occurrence across the Eastern and Western Ghats of peninsular India. The Decalepis hamiltonii is the type species of the five-member Periploaceace family and can be found growing along open, rocky slopes and in crevices of dry to moist deciduous forests.

With its fleshy tuberous roots, the Decalepis hamiltonii is a versatile nutraceutical. It lends itself as easily to aiding digestion and acting as a blood purifier, as it does to curing a range of conditions including dysentery, uterine haemorrhages, skin diseases, chronic rheumatism, anaemia, coughs and bronchitis.

Ayurveda and folk medicine too enlist the use of the roots as appetite stimulants and to manage nutrition, stomach and nervous system disorders. Many communities have an intrinsic knowledge of the three basic principles or doshas governing the Ayurvedic philosophy and imbibe dietary practices that marry the benefits of various medicinal plant parts into their food. The roots of the Decalepis hamiltonii are believed to help with inflammation and ancient tribes in the Western Ghats are known to chew on them to seek relief.

There seems to be no middle ground, however, when it comes to the reception to the Decalepis hamiltonii’s complex flavour profile. Chennai-based senior journalist Sampath Kumar went from “hating the pungent-smelling pickle as a child”, to acquiring a taste for it. He points out the subtle regional nuances that distinguish the pickle in endemic regions. The Palakkad version, he says, is soaked in lemon juice instead of the yoghurt or buttermilk that typifies the Tamil Brahmin variation.

Much-loved across Tamil Nadu’s Brahmin community, this pickle’s most unusual quality is that it doesn’t use any oil, depending instead on yoghurt or buttermilk to act as the key pickling agent. For Chennai-based librarian Gowri Govender the onset of “winter” in the city, and the tight window between the end of December and January, is much anticipated as vendors start displaying the mahali kizhangu roots on their carts in places such as “Mylapore’s Tank area and T Nagar’s vegetable market”.

While the mahali kizhangu’s status as an endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list can be put down to exploitative harvesting practices and habitat loss, its positioning as a forgotten or overlooked ingredient may have to do with a lack of knowledge regarding its preparation. This legacy is often inherited; Gowri, for instance, learnt of the mahali kizhangu pickle through watching her fastidious grandmother who treated the process, “like a ceremony, with her mouth tied so as to prevent germs from potentially contaminating the mixture”. The root would be held horizontally by her grandmother who would be seated on the traditional floor-level wooden platform, known as the arrival manai. Both hands were then used to cut the root using the curved blade at the instrument’s head, following which the inside stalk would be removed and the remnants chopped into pieces.

Gowri is now the torchbearer of the mahali kizhangu pickle-making, administering her own tweaks that are served with a side of sagely advice. She warns against the rough handling of the root saying that it houses, “the main stem — a beautiful brickish red colour — inside, which cannot be broken and so you need to cut around it”. The washing too must be done thoroughly so as to rid it of earth, followed by paper drying to ensure there is no moisture. The chopped root pieces are then added to a simple marinade of chilli and turmeric powders and salt and stored in an airtight jar. Unlike the traditional recipe that calls for yoghurt to be added at this stage, Gowri prefers to mix her pickled mahali kizhangu roots with curd “on the spot”.

If Gowri approaches the pickling of this medicinal root with the seasoned instinct of a home cook, Ganeshram operates from a place of scientific interest and precision. His curiosity in makali beru, as he refers to it, was piqued while trying to revive indigenous recipes featuring fermented foods. His pet peeve being, “we hear so much about kombucha and sauerkraut, but don’t talk enough about something like makali beru because it’s not seen as cool.”

Decalepis1 Picture Credit Dr. Santhan P, Plant Taxonomist-min

Decalepis2 Picture Credit Dr. Santhan P, Plant Taxonomist-min

This knowledge, however, is a double-edged sword and his protective streak as a naturalist comes to the fore. “If I had to promote only makali beru, there would be a crazy demand [for it], so I am wary of this. This is the risk faced when you promote just one ingredient and it is dubbed a superfood.”  His preparation of the root is not as persnickety as “those who really pickle. I just peeled and chopped the root, which is extremely crude.” This nonchalance is compensated when it comes to his keen research into aspects such as the crucial buttermilk with which the pickle is preserved.

Ganeshram constantly absorbs techniques gleaned from his preoccupation with ancient texts such as the Paaka Darpana — an ancient tome on Indian cookery by King Nala — and other Sanskrit works. These books, he adds, would not just list the generic use of buttermilk but specify what strain, each of which would be given about eight names depending on the proportions of yoghurt to water.

These are the tenets he drew from while preparing his own makali beru pickle over a period of months. The fermentation rate was controlled based on the concentration used and he would “pour a part of the mixture out and top it up with fresh buttermilk.”

The stomach cooling properties of the Decalepis hamiltonii’s roots also provide relief from constipation and acidity, which have led to the production and consumption of a health drink in certain southern endemic states. Incidentally, it is this drink — locally referred to as Nannari sharbat or Rayalseema sharbat — that has led to a degree of confusion with regard to its botanical identity in India.

The species is often mistaken for the Hemidesmus indicus — more commonly referred to as the Indian sarsaparilla or nannari — which is made into the original nannari drink. Ganeshram says, “In India, names are often more a function of a species’ utilitarian value rather than botanical identity. Seeing that both cool the body, common folk often mistake one for the other.”

The commercialisation of this drink has led to an overexploitation of the plant in widely occurring areas such as Chittoor, Anantapur, Nellore and the Kadapa districts in Andhra Pradesh. While the act of root collection serves as a source of livelihood — with prices going up to Rs 150 per kg during the summer — for the Chenchu and Yanadi tribals of these areas, the plants don’t survive following the removal of roots and the resultant gaps are occupied by the root system of neighbouring plants.

As with many others in his field, Ganeshram’s concern is the growing pressure on medicinal plants “to perform year-round and them being unable to do so because their spaces are shrinking.” He adds that globalisation is ever ready to rear its predatory head with “someone sitting in Delhi who previously didn’t have a clue about makali beru in Karnataka wanting it, and another in Europe who now wants to drink nannari sharbat.”

He reminds us that Ayurvedic and Siddha practitioners have conventionally prescribed treatments and diets, specific to seasons and geographical landscapes. “My mentor in Iritty (Kerala) gives me a treatment specific to that ecosystem. If he were to move to Rajasthan he wouldn’t be able to prescribe those plants and would have to find things accustomed to that flora and habitat. Our problem is we want all of India in one book.”

Jehan Nizar is an independent features writer and food blogger based in Chennai, India. Her work most often explores food as a point of convergence for history and anthropology and has appeared in national and international publications including The Wire, The Wire Science, Firstpost, Whetstone Magazine, PEN America, The Spruce Eats, and Gulf News. She formerly wrote a food column for Asiaville.



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