What on Earth?
I think my eyes are playing tricks on me because those pods resemble long, slender, green snakes hanging from trees. I laugh nervously but with giddy excitement because I can’t register what I’m looking at.
My associates don’t know what to think of the pods either.
So we just stand there, in the middle of Southern California’s Coachella Valley, staring, gazing, trying to wrap our heads around our new discovery: the Moringa tree.
It’s a hot summer’s day in 2015 and we’ve driven east from Los Angeles, beyond the San Bernardino Mountains, and through the desert to the Coachella Valley to meet a farmer specializing in ethnic Indian and specialty produce.
I’ve never visited a farm in the Coachella Valley before, so this was something new. Up to this point my only understanding of the region was that it’s home to the world-famous Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. (With that said, the Valley is one of the most productive food producing areas in the U.S. and the world.)
The farmer we’re meeting had emigrated from India in the 1980s and began growing okra in the Coachella Valley in the ’90s to great commercial success.
The rise in popularity of Indian food in the states enabled him to expand his farming portfolio (he has more than 300 acres) to include Indian eggplant, green and red chilies, squashes, beans, mangoes and other specialty produce for restaurants and international food markets.
The farmer put on a show for us that day. We walked his crops, getting more and more enthralled with his distinctive fruit and vegetables. He waited until the end of our visit to bring out his headliner.
We turn the corner from his Indian mangoes, and then, as if he knew he was going to surprise us, he brings us to an orchard.
At first I can’t make out much other than the leaves on the trees. I walk closer.
Whoa! Now I see them.
Fluorescent green pods as long as 2 feet dangle from the branches. Everywhere I turn I’m surrounded by these giant green beans. But these are no beans.
The farmer explained that the Moringa pods have large seeds and fruit meat that can be eaten as a vegetable in curry dishes, stews and soups, or consumed whole after boiling, among other uses. It has a fibrous texture with a unique taste. It’s also widely considered a superfood.
India is the leading producer globally, and Moringa has been introduced to parts of Africa, Asia, Central America and South America, but the farmer we’re with is one of the only commercial growers in the U.S.
As my group continued to speak about the Moringa trees, I drifted off. Literally. I walked away through the trees, in awe once more by how a food can be so popular in one part of the world yet so foreign to me.
What a trip.