One of the most delightful things about the rainy season is the wealth of wild foods that pop up from the earth like they were waiting for nature’s signal to get going. While most gardens and farms everywhere are rich in these hidden gems, up in the mountains, some unusual edibles appear with the first sprinkling of the rains.
Monk’s beard is one such seasonal favourite, locally known as thaadi keerai, a nod to its wispy, beard-like appearance (thaadi = beard, keerai = greens). It springs up in clusters between carrot and beetroot plants, and you could easily mistake it for a useless weed and throw it into the rubbish heap. Although it is a weed, it is no ordinary one. It’s needle-like fronds are edible and nutritious: rich in vitamin A, iron, potassium and calcium. Additionally, it is a natural antioxidant and diuretic.
Scientifically called Amaranthaceae salasola, thaadi keerai comes in many variations, with a multitude of names, and it is considered a delicacy in many parts of the world. Up in the mountains it is a small plant (no more than four inches tall), with the flavour of summer rains and the grassy undertones of tender asparagus. Closer to the plains, a closely related sub-species called umiri keerai grows all over the salt marshes of Tamil Nadu. On a recent visit to a seaside resort in Tuticorin, our host introduced us to these wild greens that we plucked from the salt pans around us. It is fleshier and short-leaved, with the tanginess of the sea embedded in it. This ‘sea spinach’ is a popular keerai relished by the locals, cooked as a poriyal with grated coconut and seasoning.
It is believed that the Capuchin monks of Tuscany in Italy originally cultivated this green (called agretti in Italian), which went on to become a favourite in local markets and spread through other regions. Italian cuisine, which prizes its wild greens, has a range of recipes for agretti, and shoppers have to queue up to get a bunch. It is quickly stir-fried in olive oil with minced garlic, then tossed with angel hair spaghetti or sautéed in butter with wild mushrooms and flavoured with anchovies. Frances Mayes, the author of Under the Tuscan Sun, says this about these greens: ‘while agretti has the mineral sharpness of spinach, it tastes livelier, full of the energy of spring’.
The Japanese variation is known as okahijiki (Salasola komarovii), with a privileged place as one of the country’s ancient heritage vegetables. It is thus cultivated as a regular crop and sold in large bunches in the marketplace. Okahijiki has longer, tougher stalks, and its tanginess makes it perfect for stir-fries and pickles.
Of late, monk’s beard has also become a fine-dining food trend in Europe, where it is stuffed into omelettes, added to quiche, or sauteed with other vegetables, which keeps its fresh, herby taste intact. It is also sprinkled raw into salads or as a crisp topping for a risotto, but as the season is short-lived and the plant doesn’t seed fast enough, there is never enough to meet commercial demands. Many chefs have taken to growing it―along with other exotic ingredients―in their own kitchen gardens for use in their restaurants.
I had read about these prized greens in a popular food magazine, then saw a few bunches at Kodai’s Sunday Market along with other foraged edibles. Imagine my delight some years back when my gardener, Ponram, brought in a basket of freshly plucked thaadi keerai along with wild mushrooms from under the pine trees in my garden. Ponram said that this and other keerai were seasonal favourites that they waited for each year, with the arrival of the first rains. His wife, Pandyamma, would make a poriyal with it, he said, sometimes with the addition of dried fish for extra flavour. Locals in Kodaikanal also combine thaadi keerai with shallots, mustard and curry leaf, and scramble an egg into this for a nutritious main dish. The key to getting the best flavour when using these greens is to cook them only briefly.
I sautéed the greens in butter with minced garlic and shallots (along with the mushrooms) and piled it all on buttered toast, topped with finely grated cheddar cheese. It was delicious, the flavour was a combination of tender asparagus and baby spinach. A woodland repast, a fine dining experience, earthy and yet sophisticated.
Note: With the monsoon’s arrival this year, try scouting around green spaces for some thaadi keerai, but always remember: when harvesting from the wild, pick only what you need for a meal or two, leaving enough to regenerate. Of course if you are harvesting from your own garden, pick as much as you want, but either way, ensure you look at pictures and botanical drawing to correctly identify the species. If you want to cultivate monk’s beard, look for seedlings or wait for the seeds to appear.
I love the texture of this tempura: crisp fried morsels with melting tender green centres. The fresh, herby flavours of mountain greens pairs well with a garlicky curd dip, or an Asian-style dipping sauce with soy.
- Monk’s beard/ thaadi keera/ umiri keera– 2 cups (after removing the woody stalks)
- Egg- 1 large
- Iced water – 200 ml
- Refined flour/ maida – 1 cup
- Rice flour/ corn flour – 1 tbsp
- Oil – 2 cups
- Salt to taste
- Pluck the tender clusters of leaves off the woody main stalk. Rinse well, drain, and pat dry on a towel. Do not separate the leaves.
- Heat oil to a medium-hot temperature in a deep terracotta chatti or kadai used for frying.
- Dust the clusters of green with 1 tbsp maida, separating each so they can be lightly coated. This maida can be taken from a 1 cup measure.
- Prepare the batter by lightly whisking the egg in iced water. Add the remaining maida, rice/corn flour, and salt to make a smooth batter.
- Using tongs or a fork, dip the clusters of the greens into the batter, frying in small batches of 4 or 5 so they remain separated.
- Fry until they are crisp but not brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain well on paper towels.
- Serve immediately with a garlicky curd dip, or a dipping sauce of light soy sauce and toasted sesame oil.