Sometime in the ‘80s, my husband watched in fascination as a beautiful woman in a yellow saree cut down a whole murunga (or moringa) tree. The Tamil film was K. Bhagyaraj’s Mundhanai Mudichu, the title a reference to the knot at the edge of a woman’s saree pallu where she might tie a few coins for safekeeping. Bhagyaraj himself starred alongside Urvashi, already one of the most celebrated heroines in Tamil cinema.
It’s something of an understatement to say Mundhanai Mudichu hasn’t aged particularly well. In it, Urvashi’s Parimala falls in love with her teacher, a single father and a widower named Vaathiyar, who doesn’t reciprocate her feelings and only agrees to marry her after she lies to the village council and accuses him of taking her virginity. Suffice to say, he isn’t in the mood to be seduced, so Parimala is forced to rely on the most unlikely aphrodisiac – bitter murunga.
The night she chops down the tree, Parimala serves her husband a feast: murunga puttu, a dish made with steamed rice flour, coconut and murunga leaves; murunga drumsticks (or seed pods) fried into a poriyal; murunga leaves seasoned with mustard seeds and grated coconut; pure white murunga flowers finely diced and lightly tossed in oil, and a rich murunga sambar served in a tall bucket, overflowing with drumsticks. The lavish meal has something of the desired result, dooming Vaathiyar to a visibly uncomfortable night.
Is murunga – Moringa oleifera to the more scientifically minded among us — an aphrodisiac? It certainly works hard to earn its reputation as a miracle tree. Studies do suggest it enhances sexual performance, albeit mainly in cis males — I should clarify that the males in question were rats (and I don’t mean that metaphorically). It has also been shown to improve blood sugar levels, could protect against prostate cancer and offers potent antioxidant protection. All this and truly impressive levels of nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin A and calcium at levels that blow oranges, carrots, and milk, respectively, out of the water.
However, in countries like India and Sri Lanka, we locals seldom think of the murunga as some kind of miracle tree. Instead, it is something even more precious — a tree we can take for granted. It stands there quietly in the back of the garden, or the vegetable man offers you a bunch of leaves or tender drumsticks for a few rupees, and as unassumingly as that, it joins the other dishes on your table.
My mother-in-law, Ananthy, is no stranger to murunga. She grew up with a murunga tree in her garden and a love for crab curry. Any Sri Lankan knows these passions are not unrelated.
The tree occupied a corner of her garden in Colombo, the country’s capital. It was filled with delicious things: bananas, pomegranates, papayas and herbs including curry leaf and pandanus, which Ananthy aunty remembers were grown and combined for specific purposes; boiled and crushed, ground and dried, steeped or mixed with salt and used for heat fermentation. The murunga itself was part of these medicinal preparations — included in food to help boost energy and iron levels in an anaemic relative, to treat worm infestations or gastritis, and even to improve cholesterol levels.
I wonder if Ananthy aunty rebelled as a young girl and refused to take her bitter dose of moringa. “It wasn’t as bad as the neem juice we had to drink,” she says, matter of fact, adding that since it required little water and only gentle pruning, the murunga tree was easy to care for — with the sole exception of a season in which it might become infested with itch-inducing caterpillars that had to be smoked out. But even that effort was worth it, because the tree was particularly generous with its gifts.
First, as summer arrived bringing in heat and sunshine in its wake, the flowers would appear. Picked when young and tender, the creamy white petals had to be separated from the yellow stamen and pistil and soaked to encourage any insects within to leave. Then they could be dipped in a light batter and fried for snacks, or made as thel dala — lightly sauteed in oil. Delicate, and ever so slightly bitter, this was a delicacy.
Then came the drumsticks, growing in clusters, weighing down the branches. The drumsticks were sometimes cooked in a light, bright coconut curry, but more often, they were the heroes of the sambar, adrift in a rich, deep yellow blend of lentils laced with tartness of tamarind and the deep fragrance of powdered coriander, cumin, red chillies and curry leaves.
There would be other vegetables in this dish, but this was a version which heroed the drumstick. Long and slender, the triangular seeds within were encased in a translucent core that had to be peeled away from the fibrous green casing through the dextrous use of teeth and finger tips. Sucked dry of their lush flesh, the rinds would pile up around the edges of plates that had been polished clean.
And finally, at any time of the year, young Ananthy would be sent for an armful of leaves. Small and rounded, these were gently cooked into a leafy mallung, mixed with slivers of coconut and pungent onions, or simmered in a refreshing coconut curry with dried shrimp. But the most classic use was always in a seafood curry — sometimes prawn but most often crab — where the leaves would be thrown in at the last moment, and be left to drape themselves elegantly over the claws for a few minutes before the bubbling curry was taken off the stove.
They were included not just for flavour but to mitigate possible allergic reactions and reduce the ‘heatiness’ of the curry — which has nothing to do with the actual temperature of the food but more its perceived effect on the body.
Anecdotal evidence suggests many Sri Lankans grew up considering murunga something of a staple.
Like Ananthy aunty, Ghazzali Mohideen too grew up eating murunga and has a tree in his garden even today. The hospitality veteran now runs a farm in Karadi pooval in the Puttalam district of northwestern Sri Lanka, and has dedicated years to collecting recipes from Sri Lanka’s various ethnic groups. He notes that the murunga is a hardy tree and can be counted on to survive even the driest months in some of the country’s most arid regions.
“Every home garden has a plant or two,” says Ghazzali, “and the tender murunga pods will have a pride of place in village market places.”
You could live off a murunga tree, and in 2018, a poor Sri Lankan couple did just that, making headlines with reports that they had survived solely on murunga leaves for several days – they even received a (weak) presidential apology. Though this may have been an extreme case, it seems probable that many people have turned to the humble murunga in the hardest of times. The story about the couple is interesting also because their home in Kahatagasdigiliya is in the district of Anuradhapura, a key point along a shifting border between the north and the south in the island’s nearly 30-year long civil war between the State and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant separatist group.
This border can also mark a culinary divide.
In the south – where the Sinhalese form the majority – murunga tends to be made simply, says Ghazzali. The leaves are tossed into a rough mallung or the drumsticks paired with coconut milk, and served as part of that standard lunchtime offering of rice and curry, where they will typically sit alongside two or three other vegetables and a small portion of meat.
However, some of the most distinctive preparations of murunga come from the north, home to predominantly Tamil-speaking Hindu and Muslim communities. Northern Sri Lanka saw some of the heaviest fighting during the war. The conflict officially ended in 2009, but in a region that still bears the scars (both visible and invisible), murunga is among the most essential foods, having tided people over curfews, embargoes and shortages and, in good times, providing the ingredients for feasting and celebration.
Here the leaves of the murunga are made into a rice kanji (or gruel, similar to congee) or incorporated into puttus with shrimp, cuttlefish or fried fish. The preparation of drumsticks is spicy and robust, with the seed pods sometimes being lightly fried in gingelly (or sesame) oil before being paired with small shrimp or jackfruit seeds for additional texture.
However, the most iconic Northern dish to incorporate murunga might be odiyal kool, a rich seafood soup similar to a chowder but built on a base of odiyal or palmyrah palm tuber flour. The complex notes come from a rich blend of vegetables including the fresh tuber itself, long beans and jackfruit seeds. While opinions may differ about what constitutes an ‘authentic’ odiyal kool, several versions of the recipe call for murunga leaves as well. The vegetables in the kool are complemented by tender prawns, squid and crab caught fresh off these shores and enlivened by a sharp tangy note of tamarind pulp along with the traditional blend of spices such as cumin and chili. Together, they set your mouth watering, and make it hard to stop scooping that luscious, deeply savoury broth into your mouth.
“I remember times when the Yaal Devi, the train from Jaffna, pulled in at the Colombo Fort station, many would disembark clutching bundles of murunga in addition to their luggage,” recalled Ghazzali. “The murunga of the North was considered special.”
Today, it feels like murunga is considered special in a different way. Exoticized as a superfood; picked out with pincers from that full table, from that rich history and stuffed into pills that promise immortality. We are told it is a lifesaver in drought-stricken developing countries, and while that is true, it is also true that our families and friends grew this in their backyards, plucked it fresh and ate it for pleasure and for health. There is something utilitarian, transitory and dismissive about the notions of superfoods, implying as it does that this new trend, this brief capitalist obsession too will pass. But back home, murunga will continue to appear on our tables, without fuss or fanfare, quietly delicious and utterly nourishing.
First published on Diaspora.Co + Whetstone on Sept 20, 2021.