By Dr Nandkumar M Kamat
The simplest rule of nutrition is to eat lower down the food chain as this reduces levels of xenobiotics and toxins entering our bodies. Under the microscope of anthropology and nutritional science, genetics and genomics, Goa’s traditional food tells us something unique - the call of Goan genes for seasonal delicacies.
The current disease burden seen in Goa shows a clear disconnect from traditional foods, traditional diets and seasonal food intake. Ecological simplification in Goa matches dietary simplification. Dietary simplification causes genetic simplification and spread of only hybrids and monocultures. Traditional Goan food draws from seasonal food resources. The principle was to combine prebiotics, probiotics, and antibiotics by selecting vegetables yielding beneficial phytochemicals. This article stresses on the importance of ten monsoon vegetable delicacies in search of which a true Goan would roam the markets, travel far distances and bargain hard just because his genes dictated his taste buds, and his enzymes crave for the ancient substrates. Many vegetables also provide cures for ailments and the body craves for these vegetables. Which then are these ten delicacies?
These include ferns, grasses, cucurbits and aroids. Let me list them - the first is an iodine rich edible fern called ‘ankur’ (scientific name: Acrostichum aureum) followed by two species of bamboo (Dendrocalamus strictus and Bambusa bambos) the tender shoots of which are known as ‘quills’. Fourth on my list is ‘taro’ or ‘alu’ (Colocasia esculenta). Fifth is the white amaranthus locally known as ‘dhavi bhaji’. Sixth is shirmundalechi bhaji, a rare vegetable now exploited for medicinal purposes, the wild Chlorophytum tuberosum. Seventh on my list is the edible, tasty flowers of dudi or red pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima), a species introduced from Mexico. The last three vegetables belong to the Cucurbitaceae family - cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), padwal or snake gourd (Trichosanthes cucumerina) and the spongy ghosali or ridge gourd (Luffa acutangula).
How many traditional preparations Goans make from these ten vegetables? A minimum of hundred. Let us take the Ankur. It is a fern found in mangrove areas next to the estuaries of Goa. One can see huge stands of Acrostichum near the Guirim bypass and along the Cumbarjua canal. The tender fiddleheads are harvested, and sold in small bundles. Rich in fibres, vitamins and minerals, well-cooked Ankur is a passport for good health. Goa joins a few select global communities that consume edible ferns.
Anthropologically it tells us about the wisdom of our ancestors and the first settlers who discovered their use. Bamboos are grasses found in a large belt on Earth. But it needs the wisdom of a thousand years to identify the edible species, harvest and process them. Tender bamboo shoots contain lethal concentrations and amounts of cyanogenic glucosides which on endogenic hydrolysis yield hydrocyanic acid. Cooking destroys the enzyme responsible for the endogenic hydrolysis to a very large extent. But Goans know the art and science of cutting, soaking, removing the unwanted principle. The tender bamboo shoots which Goans consume are rich in vitamins, cellulose, amino acids and trace elements and fibre. Edible content of a newly harvested shoot is usually 25 to 30 per cent, with smaller shoot yielding a lower percentage of edible content. Without knowledge of its preparation tender bamboo shoots should never be purchased. Among the two species Goans exploit Bambusa is considered tastier. Colocasia or taro is a favourite leafy vegetable in Goa. It is a member of the Araceae family, which is made up of at least 100 genera and more than 1500 species. It is one of the oldest cultivated crops grown for its edible corms and leaves. It is grown easily and once its irritating principle, calcium oxalate is removed, it makes a tasty preparation. Aluvadi are well known in Goa and the Konkan. It is reportedly one of the first plants to be domesticated in Goa and the Konkan and so people have accumulated a lot of knowledge in identifying the less irritating and tastier varieties. The love of Goans for Taro connects them with the Taro consuming culture of South East Asia. From where did Goans get their Taro/Alu?
It originated in the Indo-Malayan region, probably in eastern India and Bangladesh, and spread eastward into Southeast Asia, eastern Asia, and the Pacific Islands; westward to Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean; and finally southward and westward from there into Africa, where it moved into the Carribbean and the Americas. Taro is a vegetable Goans have been cultivating for the past three thousand years. This, however, is not the case with the white amaranthus, Goa’s dhavi bhaji. While the popular red amaranthus – tambdi bhaji - is available almost whole year round, the spiny, dhavi bhaji is mostly found in the wild and has to be harvested carefully. This makes it a rare monsoon delicacy. Equally rare is the wild shirmundalechi bhaji or ‘safed musali’, a species of Chlorphytum that people must have consumed for both nutritional and medicinal value. It is still popular with the Velip tribals of Goa.
Goans consume edible flowers. The tastiest preparation is made from the yellow-orange flowers of the red pumpkin or dudhi that grows on thatched roofs. Cucurbita maxima - red pumpkin - have several medicinal uses, the juice being anti diabetic. The edible flowers provide ample vitamins.
Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are a widely cultivated plant of the gourd family Cucurbitace. Cucumbers originated in India. A large genetic variety of cucumbers have been observed in different parts of India. It has been cultivated for at least 3,000 years in Western Asia, and was probably introduced to other parts of Europe by the Romans. Tender cucumbers of Goa, the pipryos, are in high demand and there is a feast dedicated to cucumbers at the St Anne’s church at Talaulim, Tiswadi. Straub and colleagues from USDA were impressed by the diversity of cucumbers in India. Snake gourd or padval is easily cultivated and even the seeds are roasted and consumed. Padval and ridge gourds (ghosali) can be found in the market. Both these cucurbits make excellent dry vegetable preparations and are a rich source of dietary fibre and micronutrients. When one travels during July-September from Panaji to Canacona via Ponda and Margao most of the biodiversity of the monsoon vegetables, which I have mentioned, would be found on sale by the roadside.
The government is aggressively pushing hybrids and transgenic crops at the cost of these traditional vegetables. Moving away from genetically dictated traditional diet is an invitation for lifestyle related diseases and disorders. It is a pity that Goans parents are compelling their children to switch over to a global diet culture unfit for our genes.