Many people turn a new leaf in the Malayalam month of Karkidakam (July-August) when the monsoon carpets the earth in a bewildering array of greens. Some shun non-vegetarian food while many dunk themselves in medicated oils or go in for Ayurveda treatment, all of which is believed to rejuvenate the mind and body. Strict Ayurveda regimes, however, insist on dietary restrictions and proscribes certain food and prescribes certain others.
Topping the list of must-dos are curries, salads and chutneys made of leaves that were once easily available all over Kerala. After all, it is that time of the year when everything in Nature seems to be sprouting. Even compound walls and cemented floors have tiny leaves stubbornly pushing their way up between minuscule spaces.
“Green leaves are rich in minerals and iron and extremely good for detoxing and cleansing the body. Perhaps that is why our ancestors made it a practice to consume a wide range of leaves during this month, usually set apart for reawakening the body,” says Lalitha Appukuttan, celebrity nutritionist and television hostess. Medical practitioners are also encouraging people to include more of leaves in their diet to increase their intake of iron and prevent anaemia.
Looking at the many plants growing wild in the backyard of my house, my mother would reminisce how her mother would make use of almost all the tender leaves that sprouted during the monsoon.
“Tender leaves of colacasia, yam, pumpkin, ash gourd…all would go into making thoran or erissery,” she would say in the background while I plan for a lunch with whatever was readily available.Imagine picking all that in the morning while I am trying to get to work on time… I would mentally roll my eyes.
However, naturopathy practitioner Gangadharan says that the leaves have multi-fold benefits that cannot always be distilled into medicines.
“Wrong diets can cause many illnesses and in the olden days, when the monsoon used to bring life to a standstill, people used to devote that season for many kinds of wellness programmes, one of which was following a diet rich in greens such as Karkiddkakka kanji. Moreover, leaves can reduce the acidity in the body and make it alkaline, which prevents several diseases,” explains Gangadharan.
At Pathayam, a restaurant he runs in the city, he serves the ‘Pathila thoran’, the literal meaning of which is a dry stir fry made of 10 kinds of leaves, for lunch. “It is a bunch of greens that could once be plucked from fields and homesteads. Today, our insistence on ‘weeding’ has resulted in the disappearance of many of these plants,” says Dr. E. Sajeev Kumar, a scientist with the K.R. Narayanan Centre for Biotechnology, Kottayam.
With missionary zeal Sajeev is advocating the inclusion of these everyday plants in our daily diet.
According to him, the leaves of almost all the plants in our vicinity can be used in our diet. “But one has to know how to cook each and what should be combined with what to produce the best results,” he adds. In fact Sajeev is famous for cooking a sadya with leaves and he has just finished one such sadya when I speak to him over the phone.
With supreme confidence, he asserts: “I cook a mukkuthi pradhaman and no one can better that in flavour and taste.” He has also published a book of recipes featuring only leaf-based dishes, right from short eats to curries and desserts.
Meanwhile, at Pathayam, lunch is ready to be served and the Pathila thoran is the star. The green thoran turns out to be not only palatable but full of flavours as well. Might as well take a leaf from my mother’s book!
Storehouse of essential vitamins
Thalu (wild coloccasia); Thakara (oval-shaped cassia); Choriyannam (Tragia involvucrata); Thazhuthama (spreading hogweed); pacha cheera (spinach); Chembela (coloccasia leaves); Mathan ela (leaves of tender pumpkin); Payaru ela (leaves of cow pea); chena ela (elephant yam) leaves); Neyyunni (diplocyclos palmatus); Koovalam are some of the leaves used for the Pathila thoran.