Chennai

Go foraging and get connected

The evolution of homo sapiens is popularly illustrated in a series of sketches, one progressing from a hunched and initially almost-crawling position to that of ramrod-straightness and ease of movement, somewhat like unfurling silk.

The supermarket signifies the highest point of this evolution: The shopping cart and the shelves do not allow splurging homo sapiens to throw away what they have earned by the sweat of their brow: that ramrod-straightness and ease of movement.

How about a bit of devolution, one that takes us to an atavistic pursuit: How about rootling through the bushes, looking for sources of sustenance?

Urban foraging hardly ever gets as dramatic as that. However, it does temporarily free humans of a few props, the shopping cart prominent among them, and reconnect them with nature, and lead them to appreciate it better, as also the vegetables, fruits and herbs they have footslogged their way to.

Akash Muralidaran

Akash Muralidaran

In the early part of the pandemic, Akash Muralidaran, a food designer by training and profession, launched himself into the unknown, looking for vegetables that had been rested for too long. It was a 100-day project, one that challenged him to unearth at least one traditional, but now less-used vegetable from Tamil Nadu, and include it in a food preparation.

The limitations of the shopping cart were exposed early on. “Crawling” helped — again, that is figurative language, not to be ingested uncooked and raw. Akash, a resident of Adambakkam, had gone foraging for less-used ingredients, in the urbanscapes of Chennai. Foraging for vegetables and fruits, Akash notes, is a value-multiplier, increasing the preciousness of these resources, usually lost in the packaging and mindless living.

“At the time I embarked on the project, the point I was making was that the act of looking for vegetables outside the market was not present in the cities anymore. To think about fruits and vegetables is to think about going to a market or supermarket. That they could be acquired from elsewhere is a concept city-dwellers are not familiar with,” explains Akash.

He agrees that heading out to less disturbed spaces on the outskirts of Chennai where nature might have a somewhat freer run, for foraging would yield a wider basket. But that would be missing the point of the exercise.

Forgaging has to be in one’s immediate environment for it to provide yield that goes beyond considerations of food and nutrition. It would enable them to get familiar with their surroundings.

‘Find it where you live’
When food educator Shruti Tharayil had launched a wild food trail, the pandemic put the spoke in the wheels, made it a truncated journey. So it seemed, at the beginning.
On hindsight, Shruti sees the pandemic as the best thing to have happened to the initiative.
The response to her online workshops about how to forage for what feeds and heals, in one’s environment, was encouraging, notes Shruti. The pandemic has caused people to be available to their own environments, being sensitive to what is growing around them.
Shruti points out that the wild food walks — which are paid and not for free — are not about foraging, but how to forage for useful plants and herbs in one’s own garden, sometimes even in the footpaths. She reveals that she has conducted two walks this year, both at the community garden nurtured and maintained by Kasturba Nagar residents.
“The walks show how to identify the properties of a plant to ascertain if it is edible and discover its medicinal qualities.”

“For you to make foraging a part of your lifestyle, you have to do it where you live, in your apartment or street,” notes Akash.

One can start with the obvious: “On the streetscapes of Chennai, you commonly find moringa, papaya, mango and neem.”

What good can come out of foraging? Is there a philosophy behind it?

“We are talking about eating local and fresh and picking a vegetable or fruit just down the street makes it more special, more exclusive. I think it increases the perceived value of the vegetables and fruits that you are looking for, as there is an investment of time in finding them.”

Besides, doing this makes one more conscious of what they send down to their stomachs.

In the urban environment, foraging is an almost lost skill.

“From a huge moringa tree in front of my house, drumsticks would fall on the street. Except for the odd occasion, these drumsticks would remain on the street, unpicked.”

Rediscovery of foraging can lead to an appreciation of another practice that is fading away from urban environments, in part due to vertical living. Sharing fruits and vegetables across the fence. In the past, there would be an assured supply of mangoes, jackfruit and sapotta among neighbours, Akash recalls his childhood. A word of caution about foraging: It is a thin line that divides foraging and thieving and what it turns out to be depends on how the owner views it. To avoid ambiguity, Akash agrees, anyone open to letting others forage around their homestead could have a board saying “Forgaging is allowed”, in Tamil and English.


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Printable version | Jun 27, 2022 10:22:42 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/go-foraging-and-get-connected/article65470733.ece