Wild India, Exploring The Rise Of Uncultivated, Foraged Greens
Image Credit: Forgotten Greens/Instagram

As a child who grew up with a head full of fantasy and magic, I remember many of my favourite games including the brewing of magic potions. Blades of grass and stray petals became the basis of fantastical creations and gathering up treasures from the unexplored wilds of my back garden was the ultimate adventure. Time has changed the nature of how I view these ventures, while at the same time, learning more about the potential of earth’s uncultivated wilds has only served to increase my wonder of them. 

India, a land of diverse cultures, traditions, and flavours, boasts a culinary landscape that is as rich and varied as its geography. While spices like turmeric, cumin, and cardamom have long been associated with Indian cuisine, hidden treasures lie within the realm of wild foraged greens and vegetables. These humble yet vibrant additions have been an integral part of Indian cooking for centuries, contributing not only to the flavour profile but also to the health and well-being of people in every corner of the country

To the average city-dweller, these greens are still a thing of mystery although the concept is slowly working its way into the limelight, aided by a number of passionate botanists, chefs, researchers and historians who are dedicated to utilising localised foraged greens to enhance our country’s biodiversity. 

What are uncultivated greens?

Though they go by many names –  foraged greens, wild edible plants (WEPs), wild greens – the core tenet is that they are native to the area in which they grew and can do so without any human cultivation. There are hundreds if not thousands of different types to explore and each region has its own specialities. By nature, they also go hand in hand with seasonality as each will thrive in different climes, though there are many perennials among them that form the backbone of many rural diets. 

What is Foraging? 

The act of gathering these edible wild plants, for cooking or for further cultivation is known as foraging. Though the term evokes mental images of ancient hunter-gatherers, it’s by no means a lost art and is to this day a food source that many people rely on. Shruti Tharayil, a self-taught herbalist and the founder of Forgotten Greens has been immersed in this space for over five years and has learned her knowledge of foraging first-hand. “I worked with rural and Adivasi communities in Andhra Pradesh and this is the first time I saw someone foraging,” she recalls, “They made a dish from foraged purslane, before that I thought it was a weed, but when I tasted it, I realised it was delicious.” It’s this experience of trial and error that forms the foundation of foraging. It’s an art form built on ancestral knowledge of what is edible, what is toxic and how to sustain life on what grows around us. 

Image Credits: @tableinthehills/Instagram

How Is Foraging Beneficial?

There have been ample discussions around the world about how eating local is the next step towards a sustainable future, and foraging is the distilled version of that concept. But aside from the carbon footprint reduction that comes alongside eating regionally, there are also a lot of health benefits that can come with including foraged greens in your diet. As Sangeeta Khanna, a food and nutrition consultant and holistic health advocate explains, “Foraged greens are actually a very good way to get nutrition. These forest greens that grow in natural environments are usually free of chemicals and even if they’re not they have a higher concentration of flavinoids and antioxidants because the wild vigour they have to survive makes them nutritionally superior. 

There are also many ways that uncultivated greens and vegetables align themselves naturally with modern diets. “There are a variety of roots and tubers, yams, sweet potatoes which have a low glycemic index and great nutrition and people don’t even know they exist which is the sad part of it,” says Chef Avinash Martins – best known for his work at Cavatina by Avinash Martins in Goa and more recently, his farm to fork venture ‘Table in The Hills’. “I did a foraging festival for the Serendipity Festival of Arts last year showcasing the tribal food of Goa,” he explains, “There wasn’t a drop of oil, it was organic, gluten-free, vegan and this was regular food that the tribals eat and people’s jaws dropped because they didn’t know this kind of cooking was possible. But back then when wheat, cheese, milk and meat weren’t used, this is how we ate. We were agrarians, we lived off the land and that’s the reality.”

Is Foraging Sustainable For Indian Food?

Though it may be the foundation of our food history, India’s current relationship with foraging is a complicated one. “Foraging is common in all rural parts of India in any even semi-urban spaces, even in urban spaces but it’s not recognised as foraging in these spaces.” says Shruti, “It is a practise that’s becoming lesser and lesser since it’s not always convenient. As our lives are becoming faster, it is disappearing. There is a trend in India, especially post-India where it's become a fad, while at the same time, it’s dying out in rural areas.”

Urban development had severely restriction natural spaces and wild plants simply don’t have the space to grow the way they used to and in the quantities that would be necessary to make them a viable mass food source.

There’s also always the risk of people attempting to help the environment through foraging and unknowingly skewing the biodiversity balance in the process. “We have to have a sustainable approach,” says Avinash, “If we send everyone to the forest to start foraging and cutting trees we’re going to kill ourselves. We need to identify species and identify nature in a way that aligns with the proper life cycle. We can’t over-reap, we have to be sensitive and take only what we need.”

Image Credits: @sangeetaamkhanna/Instagram

Ethical Cooking And Wild Greens

As we know, the core of foraged food means that it’s local, but unfortunately, according to Sangeeta, that’s not always the case. “A lot of people are using them for cosmetic purposes but there’s very little sustainability in that. Unless one is using fresh produce growing around them it can be difficult. If it motivates people to use what is growing around that works, but if we start treating them as exotics, ordering them from all over, that’s not good.”

The culinary sector is seeing more and more restaurants adding wild greens to their menus but according to Chef Avinash it’s unlikely to become a mainstream choice because to ethically utilise local produce takes a lot more innovation and flexibility than most restaurants have the bandwidth to keep up with. "I have a small restaurant and so I can comfortably change the menu every day depending on availability. Larger restaurants are dependent on a steady supply chain. A lot of people from the hospitality industry aren’t comfortable with this format.” he says.

When it comes to cooking with wild greens, the rule of thumb is that less is more both in terms of quantity and techniques. “These are often potent medicinal plants,” says Sangeeta, “and they usually have higher levels of oxalic acid and sometimes heavy metals so it’s best to consume them in smaller amounts and always in a cooked form unless you’re very sure they can be eaten raw.”

The Future Of Foraging In India

While this used to be the sort of knowledge passed between generations, today a quick Google search will likely turn up dozens of local foraging walks in many major Indian cities. But the message is the same and the key to foraging safely, ethically and gainfully is through educating yourself. Sangeeta recommends talking to house help and people around you that come from more rural areas, part of normalising foraging starts with conversations that convince people that it’s not something to be left behind in villages, but rather brought into everyday life. There are also ample apps and resources online to help you understand and identify plants that grow wild even within cities. 

The biggest takeaway for anyone looking to explore the world of foraging is to take things slow. In a world where we’re conditioned to want more, foraging is a return to a slower, more harmonious way of living. It’s about finding balance, taking only as much as you need and giving back more to the earth while you do so.