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Edible weeds are our manna

Maundy Thursday commemorates Jesus Christ’s last supper with the apostles. It may involve food, but is expectedly not among my favorite stories.

As a food writer, I pay close attention to the narratives in the Bible that involve food and eating. My favorite is the miracle of the loaves and the fish, where Jesus fed a multitude of 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two small fish. The Gospel of John mentions that the food came from a single boy in the crowd. After the meal was over, the apostles collected the scraps which filled up 12 baskets.

Likewise, the story of how the Israelites were blessed in their journey to Canaan by a divine supply of manna catches the imagination. The Book of Exodus says that the manna appeared each morning after the dew was gone and sustained the travelers on their journey through the unforgiving desert. Although scientists today say that the manna could have been the sweet and aromatic resin of the tamarisk tree, the crystallized “honeydew” of certain insects, or a type of lichen, it was auspicious that the food appeared when it was needed most.

In the Philippines, the weeds that we take for granted could be considered manna to prevent hunger. The book Ooops! Don’t Throw Those Weeds Away! written by Nonie Dolera, Carmen Florento, Maur Lichauco, and Flor Tarriela identifies some of these. There are talinum (Talinum fruticosum) that is also known as fameflower, Philippine spinach or waterleaf, pipinong ligaw or tiny cucumbers that grow from climbing vines with curly tendrils, pansit-pansitan (Peperomia pellucida) and lupo lupo, a weed that grows in plowed-over areas and is used as a vegetable to go with fish and crustaceans on Panay island. Wild spinach or oray is cooked as vegetable, with the ashes from leaves as the source of lihiya for cooking glutinous rice or suman sa lihiya. Borbotak or painter’s brush weed can be added to young corn and mongo soups, while pako or edible ferns are a tasty addition to salads.

“It is not hard to convince people to eat weeds after they taste these,” says Philippine National Bank chairman Flor Gozon-Tarriela who makes it her mission to educate people on the usefulness of weeds. “What people ignore or take for granted can help lessen the hunger and nutrition problems. Weeds can be a source of economic opportunities.”

Flor Tarriela propagates edible weeds in Flor’s Garden, a five-hectare property in Antipolo. But “even in small areas, you can have sustainable food sources.” Aside from being fast-growing, the bonus is that the plants need minimal care.

It may be surprising that some weeds have become tasty components of haute cuisine. Indian hydrocolyte or takip kuhol, for example, is used for making leaf tempura in Japan. The stems and leaves have a high vitamin and mineral content. The plant is also processed as tea in China, where it is called the “herb of longevity” or more popularly, gotu kola. Moreover, it is gaining a popular following among those who opt for herbal cures for varicose veins and cellulitis.

We tried a weed and flower salad that included white cadena de amor, katuray or vegetable hummingbird, pipinong ligaw, deep purple ternate flowers, and others. This went well with a “blushing blooms” vinegar-based salad dressing with minced onions, garlic, sugar, pickles from the book. Although weeds may be plants considered unattractive, undesirable or troublesome, especially growing where they are not wanted, they should find a place in our gardens and diets. They are quite tasty, too.

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