I have been an urban forager even before I knew what it meant. My school was at Churchgate, a leafy area in Mumbai that is home to trees older than my ancestry. The school compound had a papaya tree, not so tall, so children could pluck the fruit and take it home. The perfect ammunition, then, to attempt a Som Tam a la Tarla Dalal, the 20th-century cookery queen. There were jamuns too, the tart Indian berry that fell by default and was often gobbled between breaks. If you ever asked me to empty the pocket of my uniform, a lone stick of tamarind from my school ground would be the sure sign of my daily pilfering.
Playful food heists apart, it wasn’t until last year’s lockdown that I realised the real power of urban foraging. At its peak, I craved a jackfruit biryani. Like fresh mutton, to get your hands on a succulent jackfruit meant ordering it in advance. But with markets shut, the only source around was the jackfruit tree in my neighbourhood. For years I had noticed that within hours of fruition, the fruit would magically disappear, as if someone was keeping a watchful eye. And this time, it was me. As two plump fruits hung low, I leapt to satiate my craving.
“There are two things that bind humans around the world—food and nature—and urban foraging is an accessible path to both,” says photographer and writer Sanjiv Valsan. Mumbai-based Valsan leads foraging walks at Aarey Forest and agrees with my speculation that travel restrictions may have inspired urban locavores to turn to their neighbourhood bounty for new culinary experiences.
It surely happened to Mumbai-based chef Thomas Zacharias, who recently cooked an entire meal using ingredients plucked from his neighbourhood. “For a vlog, my friend, comedian Kaneez Surka, challenged me to cook a meal ‘as if the world was ending,’” says the chef, who has extensively worked with foragers during his stint at The Bombay Canteen. Along with Surka, he set out to loot edibles around Bandra and chanced upon moringa, raw mangoes, curry leaves, bimbli, betel and banana leaves to cook a meal comprising pickle, breadfruit fry, crab curry and a hibiscus drink.
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