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The first weeks of lockdown in Goa were a sharp reminder of how much the small state depends on food from outside. With the mandi in Belgaum just beyond the state’s border sealed, vegetables became scarce, and meat and fish quickly disappeared. But for an alternative, people just needed to look upwards. Not for heavenly help -though that would have been welcome -but at the lumpy green jackfruits growing on so many trees.

Goa has a long history of cooking jackfruit. Fatima da Silva Gracias’ book Cozinha de Goa lists “tender jackfruit cooked with xacuti paste”, satanh or dried jackfruit paste and jackfruit seeds boiled in salt as a side dish. From other parts of India come Bengal’s enchorer dalna, jackfruit with potatoes; Kerala’s chakka erissery, jackfruit with coconut; or the kathal biryani made in many places. In Sadaf Hussain’s recent Daastan-e-Dastarkhan, he gives a kairi aur kathal dopiaza that neatly uses the green mangoes also growing in the same season.

How deep jackfruits go in India’s cooking culture can be seen from the Soopa Shastra, a collection of recipes put together in Karnataka in the court of the Jain ruler Mangarasa III in the late 15th century. It features no less than 16 jackfruit dishes. The near contemporary collection, the Nimatnama of the Sultans of Mandu also has recipes, though using ripe rather than raw jackfruit. Green jackfruit has become popular abroad as a vegan meat substitute, but the practice started in India.

Jackfruits are sometimes confused with breadfruit, which are more compact but have a similar knobbly green skin. They seem to have been brought here from Polynesia in the colonial era. They are grown along the West coast, probably more for the attraction of the tree, which combines large leaves lobed like a palm but growing from a regular wooded trunk.

But the fruit has a delicious creamy texture when cooked, and a clean starchy smell. When baked, it really does resemble bread. A third tree commonly used for food is again deeply Indian. Moringa is best known for its delicious drumstick pods, essential in sambhar and other dishes for its subtle umami flavour. But its leaves are also tender and very nutritious, and even its root has a pungent grows so easily that tireless promoter Goan festivals, told me that he wished there was a nationwide programme to grow them they even grow from sticks the tree planted in earth create easy nutrition anyone who wants them anywhere.

When we think of trees in terms of food, it is usually just for fruits and nuts. But jackfruit, breadfruit and moringa remind us they can have vegetable value as well. Most vegetables are annual plants -must be repeatedly planted and tended -but these food trees require little care beyond the original planting. And they provide all the other benefits of trees like shady cover, a refuge for birds and insects, and all the many uses of wood.

Moringa
Moringa

Moringa is known for its drumstick pods. Its leaves are tender and very nutritious and the roots have a pungent taste

There are many other such trees in India. Cordia dichotoma gives the green berries called gunda which are made into pickles. Mahua flowers are famous for the liquor made from them, but they can be eaten as well. Sesbania grandiflora is another tree whose leaves and flowers can be eaten, and as bok phool in Bengal or agati in Tamil Nadu have deep roots in local traditions. Sudhir Kumar’s Leafy and Edible Plants of North-East India lists 278 varieties just from that region, most of them little known outside.

Trees in other parts of the world also offer these advantages, though often with some cautions. Cnidoscolus aconitfolius, also known as chaya or tree spinach, comes from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. It is more a large shrub than a tree, but has the benefit of growing very fast. Its jagged and deeply lobed leaves come with stinging hairs and chemicals that can release cyanide in levels that make it risky to eat raw. Yet these disappear when cooked, leaving a vegetable that is both tasty and exceptionally nutritious.

A few enthusiasts are now growing it in India, like Edible Archives, the Goa-based restaurant that promotes traditional and sustainable foods, which has planted it in the kitchen garden that in lockdown has become their key focus.

Breadfruit
Breadfruit

Breadfruit, sometime confused with jackfruit, might have come here from Polynesia. They are generally grown along the West Coast of the country

The need to cook tree spinach is a reminder that trees generally don’t make it easy for their leaves to be eaten. They either have high levels of cellulose, which require the prolonged mastication and digestion that ruminants like cows have learned to do, or contain chemical inhibitors that make it hard to eat the leaves. Moringa, which lacks these, is well known for becoming infested with caterpillars, but to compensate the leaves come in such abundance that there is usually more than enough for everyone.

As our current Covid-19 lockdown extends, many people are considering how to secure supplies not just for now, but in a world where such a pandemic can extend for months. Vegetable gardens are an obvious idea for those who have the space. While this is very worth doing, the chances are that when regular supplies restart, the enthusiasm for planting and tending and planting them again will fade.

This is why planting food trees makes sense. The effort required is low, but the returns far more extended. Many of the trees, like breadfruit, are attractive enough to grow just for their appearance and shade, so the fruit is bonus. Some like moringa or jackfruit, are very easy to grow they will almost come up like weeds if you let them. These trees fit into our lives, growing along roads like the jamuns of Delhi, whose annual bounty of purple fruit staining sidewalks is a reminder of their many values. They are plants for pleasure, but also for the shortages caused by panics and pandemics, and not just this one, but the ones we know will come in the future.

The advantages of food trees dawn on us when a lockdown cuts vegetable supply
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