Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.
Foraging as a Way of Life
Foraging is a way of life we had abandoned for good at least a century back. Whoever has now brought back ideas such as foraging and goat yoga are the cool people who help the world to have a ‘Eureka’ moment, which is not very often, given all being rational and so.
Stuart Ovenden, a sworn forager, calls his home town a ‘seasonal wild supermarket’, where you get all things for free indeed! On the shelves, or rather in the crevices and cracks in the earth, he has nettles, hop, leek, elderflowers, lime leaves, walnuts, hawthorn berries, wild cherry plums, and so on, depending on which season he is in.
Nettles sting but once cooked, they are yummy good. So the forager picks them up using gloves. Wild garlic is a forager’s delight when added to a spring salad. Blackberries are abundantly found in the wild in the autumn. Before we board and ride this foraging bandwagon, let’s have a taste of history that begins with our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
History of Foraging
The foraging history of humans began when the people started to have more expansive ecological habitats, a more diverse diet, use of resources based on seasons, aquatic explorations, and collective hunting of large animals. Scientific evidence shows that sex division of labour happened during the late Stone Age and this happened alongside the above changes. While men went on hunting, because they are biologically stronger, women went on foraging expeditions. History states that women have been the ultimate foragers. Social scientists remind us that effective foraging requires network memories, memories collectively stored by a group, and shared in each season. The Ba Yaka tribe in Congo as a society knew of 32 medicinal plants but no individual knew the entire 32 plants. This is how collective memories work. In primitive societies, marriages evolved as a system of cooperation between one male and one female as a pair, useful for parenting. While the man went hunting, women took care of children and found time to do a little foraging- picking up edible fruits, roots, leaves, sea plants and animals, fungi, and so on. This is how foraging is connected to the social institution of marriage.
Nettle: A Favourite of Foragers
Societies Where Foraging is Still Part of Life
Malaysia has a rich foraging tradition that lives on even in modern times. In Malay coastal areas, people still forage for dog conch, spider conch, sea urchin, sea cucumber, sea grape, jelly seaweed, mussel, clam and cockle. Cockles are shellfish that form part of the routine Malaysian menu. It was mainly women, rowing small wooden boats that went foraging near the coral reefs to collect the above in Malaysia. On the mainland of Malaysia, the Durian fruit was the lucky find of a forager as it was not cultivated and grew only in the wild. This is why in the Malay language, there is a coinage, ‘Durian Runtuh’, which means, a fallen Durian literally, but is used to describe an unexpected good fortune. When the commercial cultivation of Durian became rampant, all the local varieties disappeared from earth and the platter. The shift from foraging to agriculture thus impoverished the variety and luxury of taste that people had before.
#cottagecore and #goblincore are two Tiktok foraging hashtags that have won more than 70 million views. Alex Nicole Nelson known as BlackForager on Instagram is a forager of Ohio and she has 479000 followers who learn from her how to find food in Ohio by way of foraging, and how to cook them. Gordon Walker is another Tiktok content creator whose social media name is FascinatedByFungi. He has 238000 followers and he gives away edible mushroom identification tips. There are regional field guides about the wild flora of each state available in the US. There are also foraging apps such as iNaturalist and Seek to help those who want to forage in and around their place. Foraging classes and guided tours are also popular in cities such as New York.
Forager’s Most Favourite Finds
Steve Brill, who is a foraging guide and teacher in New York prescribes the ‘foolproof four’ rule for mushroom foragers. One should stick to four mushroom varieties, giant puffballs, morels, chicken of the woods and chanterelles. These are unmistakably identifiable edible wild mushrooms. Dandelions might be the most collected edible weed from the wild by foragers. They can be put into salads, brewed to make herbal tea, and fried to make fritters. The species of plants and fungi available for foraging differ vehemently across the globe. For example, in Asia, a forager will be looking for leafy vegetables, gooseberries, mushrooms, jack fruits, sun berries, blackberries, cashew mango, and colocasia stem. In Africa, a forager will be delighted to find Samphire, Kruipvygie, or a Confetti bush.
Pollution and Foraging
Pollution is the most important negative factor to look out for while foraging, especially in urban areas. It is better to avoid places where pesticides and weedicides are used rampantly. Foraging from heavy traffic regions is also risky as many studies found high levels of toxic substances in wayside plants. A study published in 2015 by Wellesley College and Boston’s League of Urban Canners had a contrary result to cite. They studied the presence of heavy metals, arsenic and lead, in edibles foraged from urban areas and the results showed only a low level of such contamination in foraged food items. Compared to tubers, roots, and leaves, fruits and nuts showed even lower levels of toxin presence.
Foraging, Society and Politics
The early laws that were in place in the US against foraging were mainly devices used by colonisers to keep away the Native Americans and control their natural rights on land and forests. Later indigenous people had to fight legal battles to win back their foraging rights on Federal land. Still, there are many restrictions in place. It is important to practise moderation while foraging as many wild plants are food to other animals also. Mindless foraging can also destroy the ecological balance of your environment. One thumb rule is that even if the whole plant is edible, only take some parts of it at a time.
A Forager’s Tools
The tools that a forager should have for foraging include, carry bags, small jars for berries, paper bags for mushrooms, a pocket knife, and a pen and a notebook to note down names and details if needed. The ultimate tools of a forager are their senses, eye, touch, and smell, mostly. There are many poisonous lookalikes to many edible plants and fungi. Only with some level of training or self-training that a person can identify the right plant.
Edible Puffball Mushrooms
The plants and fungi that are usually foraged are rich in micronutrients that people do not get usually from their regular food. Dandelion leaves have more calcium in them than spinach. Purslane and Red Clover have more magnesium in them, which is crucial for humans to fight off many diseases. Chickweed and Hairy Bittercress contain a good nutritional level of zinc. Nettle leaf and Purslane have good levels of potassium in them. Yellow Dock and Seaweed have beneficial iron content. Dandelion leaves have more Vitamin A in them than carrots.
Foraging: A Beginner’s Guide, Stuart Ovenden, bbcgoodfood.com
The Role of Foraging in Malay Cuisine, Khir, Johari, https://biblioasia.nlb.gov.sg
A Beginner’s Guide to Urban Foraging, Chase Dibenedetto, in.mashable.com
Return to the Wild: The Chef Bringing Foraged Food to the Table, Rachel Wood, edition.cnn.com
Is Food Foraged in Cities, Safe to Eat? Christina Boyes, civileats.com
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Deepa