In the Kitchen

Trying Moringa With A Little Help From Some Friends

No other fruit or vegetable has intrigued me quite like the moringa pod, a long, beanlike fruit of the Moringa Tree, which also goes by the nickname “Drumstick Tree.”

When I first encountered the tree last year in California’s Coachella Valley desert region, I had no idea what I was looking at. Bright green, slender pods – some up to 52 inches long – dangling from tree branches. They didn’t exactly look appetizing, then again, don’t artichokes look weird on first glance?

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Fresh pods ready for sale and shipping in Los Angeles, California.

 

Even though I never tried them, the moringa pods I received from that farm lingered in my mind as I allowed them to slowly go to waste in my kitchen. I didn’t know what to do with them, yet once they were gone, I was determined to try again. If people all over the world eat moringa, why shouldn’t I?

I’ve heard that you can eat the whole plant – pods, leaves, seeds – in everything from soups to smoothies, so I set out to learn more about moringa and its uses.

Since it’s not widely available in the U.S., I turned to my friend Harmit, a food scientist, for help. He was raised in India, the world’s largest producer of moringa, so I knew he could help get me out of my shell.

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Walking through the moringa orchard in Coachella Valley, California is one of the most memorable food and farming experiences I’ve had to date.

 

Harmit invited me to meet his wife Sarabjit and his mother-in-law Balwant at a local Sikh temple to discuss their experience with this bizarre-looking plant.

It didn’t dawn on me until I arrived that their invitation included taking part in a community meal (called a “langar”) of pakoras, parathas, potato curry, and other Indian dishes. I asked Harmit if my leather jacket and black trousers were appropriate. He just laughed, waved off my concerns, and handed me a plate of food.

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My friend Harmit was the one who initially introduced me to moringa and its popularity in certain regions in India and other parts of the world. His wife Sarabjit and her mother Balwant enjoy pickled moringa.

 

We found a table and Balwant happily answered every question I could think of.

Balwant is a retired teacher and expert chess player, with a soft-spoken and gracious nature. She recently moved to the U.S. from Punjab in North India, where she’s been eating moringa regularly all her life. Growing up, she didn’t have access to large grocery stores. She would purchase the pods from open-air food markets, vegetable carts, and corner vegetable shops when they were in season.

I felt silly asking her about moringa. I assumed it would be the same as someone asking me how I eat apples and what type of dishes they can be used in. So I prefaced all of my questions to her with “I know this sounds elementary…” 

Balwant explained that while she also loves the taste, she eats moringa mostly for its medicinal benefits.* It’s been getting more media coverage as a “superfood” in the U.S., but when I bring up moringa to my friends and family, none of them have heard anything about it.

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Moringa on pizza? Balwant made the suggestion and I might take her up on the idea next moringa season.

 

I’d known that moringa pods are used in curries and stews. I was surprised to hear that Balwant prefers to pickle the pods when they’re young, soft, and about the size of green beans.

The larger the pods grow, the more fibrous they become, which Harmit described as being harder to eat because they can take longer to chew. Pickled pods make for a soft and delicate accompaniment or chutney for various flatbreads like chapatis and naans. Everyone at the table shared fond memories of eating these dishes in India.

Balwant had another surprising suggestion for moringa: a pizza topping. She laughed softly when she suggested it. I think she was serious. If we can put pineapple and haggis (I’ve seen it) on a pizza, then why not moringa?

Before we left, I turned to Harmit and sheepishly admitted that I’d let the moringa pods I’d once gotten go bad before trying them. Moringa is now out of season in the U.S. and harvest won’t be until summer. Harmit told me he still had some frozen and generously offered to give me one.

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Harmit had just enough frozen pods left to give me one to try.

 

I don’t cook much and I couldn’t find any recipes online that called for a single pod. I decided to keep it simple and fry the seeds in butter. That seemed easy enough, and what doesn’t taste good in butter?

I cracked open the pod, emptied the seeds into the frying pan, added a dab of butter, and a few minutes later I had my first batch of fried moringa seeds. I was still a little nervous to try them. They looked tasty, but it wasn’t like I could call my mom and ask, “How do I know when the moringa seeds are ready?”

I finally worked up the courage and put a few in my mouth. To my delight, the seeds were good – surprisingly good. Their aftertaste reminded me of fresh snap peas, and their texture was perfectly crispy on the outside but tender and warm on the inside.

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I’m not the best cook but I was pleased with my fried seeds. Next time I will make something more adventurous with Harmit, Sarabjit and Balwant’s help.

 

It’s always amazing to try a new food that’s so common to some but still so exotic to me. What else am I missing? What else is waiting in a market stall or dangling from a tree, ready for me to come along and try something new? 

Moringa was a delightful experience – I would definitely eat it again, and I can’t wait for next summer’s harvest season. Next time, I plan to enlist the help of Harmit’s family of moringa “experts” to guide me through an even more adventurous recipe.  

*NOTE:

Before trying moringa, I suggest you do your own research into its potential health benefits and allergen risks. I’m not an expert of any sort – I’m just an inquisitive blogger who wants to share her unique food experiences with the world. Below, I’ve provided links to a few articles that I’ve found useful as I get more familiar with moringa. Let me know what you find!

TIME Magazine

The New Yorker

NPR

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