It’s a blustery, rainy Friday and I’m standing in the middle of a wild landscape somewhere in Cape Point. I’m trudging along what I’m being told is a highly edible landscape. In my life, hiking has always held limited allure for me – nothing but weeds and rocks for miles and miles. But now, otherwise unassuming plants are taking on a wildly new charm: that they’re nutritious superfoods.
I’m with Roushanna Gray, who runs Veld and Sea, an organisation that offers classes, workshops and events to introduce people to foraging and cooking with wild foods, and I’m learning a ton. Like the fact that there are little-known superfoods growing as landscaping plants, hedging malls and business parks. Others are “weeds” which grow along the highway. Yup, nutrient-dense foliage has been around us this whole time and we had no idea. Which is why foraging is taking root, developing into a full-fledged pastime of conscious eaters.
Devotees hunting through forests picking wild mushrooms. Others are planting and cultivating indigenous crops for food. And then there are those educating their communities about the abundant natural resources at their feet.
Ok sure, foraging might sound suspiciously like hunter-gathering, and in a way, they’re not dissimilar. But we’re not suggesting you give up your home and live out your days in the wilderness. Unlike some other food trends, this one’s grounded in sound science.
The list of reasons to go for more indigenous food is long. First off, it’s better for the environment. Indigenous crops are inherently water-wise and some are drought-resistant, growing in almost any conditions. Cultivating your own food or buying local also cuts down on your carbon footprint, since there’s less of a journey from the farm to your plate.
Then there are the health perks. “With the wilder plants, there are much more complex nutritional things in them because those sorts of things haven’t been bred out of them over time, so they’ll have more minerals and micronutrients,” says local indigenous food activist Loubie Rusch of Making KOS.
A prime example: pigweed – a plant most commonly seen growing wild in fields and on pavements – is Africa’s most nutritious leaf vegetable, according to the Botanical Society of South Africa. One serving will give you five times the iron you need, twice the calcium, 20 times the vitamin A and nearly half of your daily protein needs.
Amadumbe, a root-veg staple in traditional Zulu cooking, is chock-a-block with calcium, magnesium, potassium, antioxidants and vitamins A, B6, C and E. And pelargoniums – yes, the colourful blooms in your flowerbeds – are a potent aromatherapy tool, helping to relieve stress and anxiety.
“In a way, our health is linked to our home, our planet,” says Rusch. “Eating things that come from where you are is a healthy way to go, but it also ensures that you’re planting things that are good for the place that you’re planting them.”
Food activist Zayaan Khan works with organisations like the Women On Farms Project, Biowatch South Africa and the Surplus People Project to teach communities in rural areas about the foods growing around them. One nutritional powerhouse she says we’ve been ignoring? Seaweed. “People are living along the beach their whole lives, but they’re walking by and they never even consider it as food,” she says.
Roushanna is also working to change this ignorance. “People are highly sceptical about what seaweed will taste like,” she says. “They’ve got a preconceived idea that it’s all slimy and icky, but it’s actually an amazing, nutritious wonder food. It has loads of different vitamins, minerals and micronutrients that are available in a collated and colloidal form, so it’s bioavailable for your body just to absorb.”
Get Your Hands Dirty
Keen to swap your supermarket aisle for a forest trail? If you want to go foraging, you need to learn about handling plants and identifying what’s edible and what’s not – picking in ignorance could have nasty consequences (you know, poisoning and death). Signing up for a workshop is your best bet – they’ll teach you everything you need to know, along with cooking tips and advice on how to forage sustainably. After all, says Rusch, “As you give the plants value, you begin to put them at risk.” Once you’re comfortable with the plants, start cultivating your own. It’s a more sustainable way of eating and it’s far cheaper.
If you’re in Cape Town, good news: Veld and Sea are running their workshops in the city’s CBD this summer! The series will include making flower crowns, wild-food flavoured meals and heaps of foodie fun. For more information and to book a session, visit their website.