Walking down the road one day, I saw a group of kids carrying a sack emerge from the forest near Ganeshpuram village, about about ten km from Perumalmalai Forest Checkpost. There were shrivelled bits of material inside, papery and plant-like, bearing a mild woody fragrance. The entire sack weighed barely a kilogram, but the children were elated saying they were going to sell the contents for about Rs 250.
Those wispy bits of plant matter were kalpasi, also known as dagad phool in Hindi, a key ingredient in biryani masalas across the country. Kalpasi is dried lichen, found amply in the lower levels of Kodaikanal, below Perumalmalai, where the altitude and sunlight encourage their abundant growth. Walk through the woods in the area, and you’ll see them plastered onto rocks and on the trunks and branches of trees.
‘My friends and I love going into the forest to collect it,’ says Kishore, a 14-year-old resident of Ganeshpuram village. ‘Once or twice a year, during the rainy season, people come down from Kodaikanal town and ask us to help with the collection. As a group, it takes us around an hour to fill up the sack completely.’
Eaten raw, the lichen is bitter, with hints of pungent and astringent flavour notes. However, when added to a recipe and cooked, kalpasi imparts a wonderful depth of flavour to the dish. Dry ground kalpasi, or kallu hoovu, as it’s known in Kannada has little or no smell and should be roasted in a little oil to release its full smoky aroma.
Kalpasi is most often mixed with other spices, to make masala mixes for a wide range of cuisines. The East Indian community, from Mumbai, use it to make bottle masala—an all-purpose blend that is used to make everything from veggies to meat and fish curries. In Hyderabad, it is added to galauti kebabs, nihari stew, and bone marrow soups, and in Maharashtra, kalpasi is added to the ever-popular Goda masala. Closer home, in Tamil Nadu, the dried lichen is added to Chettinad chicken masala, and mushroom varuval.
Kodishwaran, a carpenter, woodworker, and builder from Barathi Anna Nagar village uses it when cooking meat. ‘Whenever we make a chicken curry, I tear off the tiniest pinch of the lichen and fry it in the tempering oil to release all the flavours,’ he said, adding, ‘It’s fun to see the children, and even adults collecting kalpasi in season to sell.’ Kodishwaran was unfamiliar with the lichen for the longest time, but always wondered how kurma, saalan and other meat gravies in restaurants got their woody aroma. Upon discovering the use of kalpasi, it has become a staple in his household cooking.
The botanical name for kalpasi is Parmotrema Perlatum, and it grows widely on tree barks and rocks in the Pethuparai valley. The lichen looks unassuming, but these olive-grey and greenish-brown blotches are in fact, a highly sophisticated life form, part of the ancient family of lichens comprising 17,000 species. All lichens are the result of a symbiotic partnership between two separate organisms: fungus and an alga. The algae (a.k.a. cyanobacteria) photosynthesise for food, and the fungi houses, grows, protects, and eventually fruits. The resulting composite organism is called a lichen, and has completely different characteristics from the two original species. To me, it is an inspiring example of how different people could possibly work together, cooperate, and thrive.
Kalpasi has medicinal properties too. For centuries, it has been recommended in Ayurveda and in Siddha medicinal practices, both as a preventive measure and curatively, for skin problems, inflammation, and in the healing of external wounds.
A study titled ‘Evaluation of Antimicrobial Prospective of Parmotrema Perlatum’, by Shanu Hoda, published in 2015, reports that the lichen and its metabolites ‘are shown to possess various biological activities such as antimicrobial, antiviral, antiprotozoal, enzyme inhibitory, insecticidal, antitermite, cytotoxic, antioxidant, antiherbivore, wound healing, analgesic and anti-inflammatory’. Their ability to withstand hostile conditions has enabled them to spread to various different ecosystems, leading to an abundance of the ingredient in local forests.
There are many ways to cook with kalpasi. Some recipes call for frying the dried lichen in oil or ghee, along with spices like cinnamon, cardamom and clove, at the start of Indian dishes such as pulau. Other recipes add kalpasi along with tempering agents such as curry leaves, urad dal, and jeera towards the end of a recipe, but most dishes that call for the ingredient add the powdered lichen with chilli, turmeric, coriander, jeera to make robust garam masalas. This is how it is used in many south Indian kuzhambus and pachadis.
Amudha, mother of two and accomplished local chef of many resorts, homestays and communities in the Anju Veedu valley, says she dislikes adding the dried lichen to food by itelf, as she always gets the quantities wrong. ‘Either the flavour becomes too strong, or I don’t taste it at all,’ she says. ‘However, I like the flavour kalpasi imparts in a spice mix, and I use it in almost every dish.’
In their natural habitat, kalpasi is considered a valuable bio-indicator of the health of its environment. In 2003, researchers Brigden and Stringer published a paper for Greenpeace Research Laboratories, that uses a close cousin of kalpasi (a lichen called Parmotrema Reticulatum) as the main bio-monitor for the atmospheric dispersal of mercury from the Hindustan Lever Limited thermometer factory. According to the paper, samples were taken from Bombay Shola and Vattakanal Shola. The flip side of being brilliant bio-indicators, is that they soak up a certain quantity of these chemicals and heavy metals too, so harvesting it from a healthy ecosystem is paramount—a reminder of how we are all, ultimately connected to our habitat in innumerable ways.
So the next time you’re walking through a forest patch, look around for lichen artwork adorning the bark of a line of trees, take a moment to admire its beauty, and give thanks for the woody aroma it adds to our curries, biryani, and meat curries.