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I still remember the backyard of my childhood home in Chennai. It was a place of abundance. Along with the flowers and papaya trees were two huge mango trees, a henna tree, and the one and only moringa oleifera. I remember its botanical name because it was the topic of my biology show-and-tell at school. “Murungai” as we call it in Tamil was my grandmother’s go-to tree. According to her, aside from the coconut tree, this was the other “Giving Tree.” It is also called the Tree of Life, The Miracle Tree, and the Gift from God.
During the flowering months of February and March, my grandmother would spread out an old sari around the tree to collect the falling flowers. She would then make rasam (a flavorful tamarind soup) with these flowers, and it was always delicious.
The long pods on the tree, with fleshy pulp-filled sections, are called drumsticks. April and May were drumstick months in our home. We got our daily dose in many different sauces and curries—sambar, mulaghutal, avial, morkuttan and much more. For the rest of the months, the murungai leaves ruled. If we ran out of side dishes, we knew what would be on the menu for the next meal—murungai ela thoran or sautéed moringa leaves. Once a week the evening snack would include murungai ela adai (thick rice pancakes made with moringa leaves). The crushed leaves also came in useful as remedies for stomach ailments. My sister-in-law’s postpartum diet was moringa with every meal.
Grandmom nurtured the tree carefully. She made sure that it was watered, the surrounding area cleaned, all the drumsticks on the tree were well inside our backyard and not jutting over onto the neighbors property where they could pick it off the tree. The dried pods or seeds were thrown into our fresh water well, as she said it purified the water. She had a long pole with cloth dipped in kerosene that she lit. She would hold the lit pole next to the stump of the Moringa tree, to burn off all the caterpillars that were clinging to the huge stump. “These kambali poochis (wooly caterpillars) love the gum,” she would exclaim.
The picture of my grandmom sitting on the front porch, de-stemming a large bunch of moringa leaves remains evergreen in my mind.
Small Leaves with Big Values
Little did I know that there was a world out there that loved the moringa as much as my grandmother. There are activists, researchers, environmentalists, biologists and chefs dedicated to this one tree. Ayurveda calls it the tree that can cure 300 diseases. The Trees for Life International says that moringa leaves can save millions of lives and can practically wipe out malnutrition from our planet.
The moringa tree dates back to 2000 B.C. and is native to the foothills of the Himalayas. There are 13 species of Moringacae family and the most famous is the Moringa Oleifera. It is also called the Horseradish tree and Drumstick tree, or the Benzolive or Mulangay tree.
The leaves of the moringa contain a wealth of essential nutrients and minerals necessary to sustain life. According to the Moringa Supreme the leaves contain 9 times the protein of yogurt, 10 times the Vitamin A of carrots, 25 times the iron of spinach, 17 times the calcium of milk, 15 times the potassium of bananas. Fresh Moringa leaves also contain 7 times the vitamin C found in oranges. Wow!
Every country uses moringa in different ways for its therapeutic value. It is widely used in African countries to treat malnutrition and disease control in women and children and for purification of water. The oil from the seeds has been used by ancient Greeks to heal skin ailments. In India it is used in the treatment of a huge list of diseases from anemia, anxiety, asthma, blackheads, blood impurities, bronchitis, catarrh, chest congestion, cholera …
Guatemalans treat skin infections and sores with moringa. In the Philippines, moringa is used to treat anemia, glandular swelling and for nursing mothers to increase lactation.
Now living here in California, we are fortunate that we can find Murungai leaves and fresh drumsticks in Indian and Asian grocery stores. Nutrition stores sell moringa powder, and some nurseries in Florida will mail you a moringa plant. The Moringa Chef uses the powder in pretty much everything from muffins to quiche.
Praba Iyer teaches custom cooking classes around the SF Bay Area. She also blogs about cooking at rocketbites.com.
Dal with Moringa Leaves
1 cup chana dal soaked in water for 4-5 hours
1 tablespoon oil
1 tsp of panch phoran* whole spices
2 cloves of garlic chopped fine
1 medium red onion chopped fine
1 inch ginger chopped fine
2 Thai chilies sliced
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp garam masala
½ tsp cayenne
2 medium vine ripe tomatoes chopped 1 cup fresh moringa leaves (destemmed)
Salt to taste
Squeeze of lime (optional)
¼ cup cilantro leaves chopped for garnish
*Panch Phoran spices – a mix of 5 spices,
mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fenugreek
seeds, nigella seeds and fennel seeds.
Heat the oil in a pressure pan and add the panch phoran spices. Once the mustard seeds splutter add the green chilies. Then add the chopped garlic, ginger and onions and sauté for a few minutes till the onions are translucent. Add the turmeric, garam masala, cayenne and the tomatoes and sauté for a few more minutes. Now add the soaked chana dal and mix well. Lastly add the fresh moringa leaves and 1 ½ cups of water. Place the lid and weight on the pressure pan and let it cook. Shut the stove after the 3rd whistle and let it cool. Remove the lid and mix in the salt and check the seasoning. Add the cilantro and squeeze a lime and serve a healthy nutritious cup of Moringa Dal.
Red Curry Moringa Drumsticks
1 cup firm tofu (drained and cubed)
1 tbsp fresh lemon grass sliced
2 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp of Thai red curry paste
2 fresh drumsticks cut into 1inch pieces
1tsp of palm sugar
1 can (13 fl oz) of coconut milk
Salt to taste
Add the garlic, lemon grass, red curry and drumsticks to a saucepan along with 1/2 cup of water and let it cook. Once the drumsticks are soft and change color from the bright green to a graying green add the tofu, palm sugar and coconut milk and lower the heat. Let it simmer and season with salt.
Serve with a bowl of brown rice.