In Copenhagen’s Botanical Garden, I encounter elderberries. I’m on a food tour around Denmark’s capital city with my guide Maria Beinsheim. She’s just pulled up the fascinating Vild Mad app on her iPhone. Danish for “wild food”, Vild Mad is a foraging app set up by the city’s legendary Chef René Redzepi (of Noma). It’s a nifty local app that informs about Denmark’s seasonal produce, location, picking methods and recipes, as well as warnings for poisonous lookalikes. After consulting the app for what’s in season, Beinsheim spots deep-blue elderberries — which come from elderflowers that are often found in cocktails — as well as stinging nettles that add flavour to omelettes and soups.
Restaurants like Noma turned the spotlight on foraging nearly two decades ago. The restaurant — which was voted the world’s best many years in a row before shutting shop and opening in a new location in 2017 — is known for prioritising local Nordic ingredients.
In the past, its menu has featured foraged greens like scurvy grass, samphire, pea shoots and beach mustard — ingredients that aren’t as commonly found in markets, for instance, but are abundant in Nature.
Over the years, foraging (meaning searching for wild food resources) has come to design plates in restaurants in India and around the globe as well as shape travel.
This interest is often pegged to a larger need of understanding where our food comes from. “It’s bare, it’s feral, it’s very hunter-gatherer-like,” says Aditya Raghavan, co-founder of Mumbai-based Danda Food Project. He used to lead a Sikkim Food Trail with travel company Kipepeo.
Tech that can help
- Vild Mad (www.vildmad.dk/en): A nifty resource when in Denmark, the well-designed app is available on iOS and Android.
- Falling Fruit (www.fallingfruit.org): An open-source interactive website, Falling Fruit seeks to be the world’s most comprehensive edible map and lists trees and plants in neighbourhoods across the globe.
- Airbnb (www.airbnb.com): Airbnb Experiences — the local-led activities listed on the site — include a number of foraging excursions in places like Iceland and California. Check if there’s a suitable one for your next trip.
For much of human history, after all, people depended on the foraging of wild plants and animals. The switch to cultivation and domestication happened only about 10,000 years ago. There’s a certain sense of connection with Nature that this activity allows, which city folks aren’t always privy to. Raghavan explains it well: “It is sobering when you find wild versions of common herbs, fruits, or vegetables. You realise how far the human race has evolved.”
Whether it’s developing a skill for emergencies or understanding food sources, foraging tours have been gaining steam around the globe.
One can track down truffles with a ‘truffle hound’ in Croatia, hunt for black mussels, giant sea snails and seaweed on the coast of Cape Town, and pick wild edible weeds and flowers on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. In Sweden, the Freedom to Roam — or allemansrätten — allows free access to its public lands for everyone. This means one can forage freely for mushrooms, berries and flowers. Another facet of this right allows free boarding as well.
Kush Sethi, a Delhi-based ecological gardener who has been guiding foraging walks in and around the city, recalls his first experience on a camping trip in the UK’s Midlands a couple of years ago. “There were blackberries, nettle, mallow, sorrel, chickweed and some plantago, which in India we know as isabgol,” he says. Foraging tours aren’t limited to forests though — in the US cities such as Boston, New York and Los Angeles, guided walks through parks provide city folk with an understanding of weeds and other wild foods.
Tips for first-time foragers
- Read up. While travelling, pick up reputed local field guidebooks from bookstores. Educate yourself with all information available before consuming anything that’s not a common edible plant. Talk to locals — guards and street vendors are a good place to begin.
- Recognition goes a long way. Apps like PictureThis (iOS and Android) and Plantix (Android) help to identify plants and confirm findings.
- Research well. Once identified, make sure the plant doesn’t have any toxic lookalikes. Make sure to wash your find before consuming a small portion. Trust your palate — if it doesn’t taste right, spit it out.
Don’t do it yourself
How do you know what to pick? “The right way is to go with someone who is experienced with a place’s micro-habitat,” Raghavan says. “The best foragers are those who have spent a lot of time visiting the same spots, year in and year out, picking up wild edibles along their path. They have seen it alter with season and re-populate with similar foliage.”
It may seem simple to identify plants you’ve encountered often, but it’s important to stay alert. For instance, you may know that the stem of a wild mint leaf has a square cross-section and tiny, bushy flowers, but all plants that have this need not be mint.
“If I spot a plant that looks like wild mint, I would confirm visual markers, then tear a leaf and press it between my fingers to smell it. If confident, I’d proceed to taste one leaf. If it is distasteful — and you must trust your palate, which has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years — spit it out,” Raghavan says. He warns against hemlock — “a poisonous umbellifer that looks a lot like its docile cousins wild fennel, dill and carrot” — and mushrooms, which “may not even taste off”.
Sethi introduces locals as well as travellers — often all first-time foragers — to edible plants on walks around Delhi’s Sanjay Van, Lodhi Gardens and Sunder Nursery.
“Our dedicated foraging walks last four hours, from field to restaurant. We start by identifying seasonal edible plants, followed by a touch, sniff and taste approach to create personal memories,” he says. “In Delhi, we seek prior permissions from land-owning agencies [before setting out]. Most of our finds are considered problem plants in the context of horticulture. We have to, in fact, request the gardeners to not pull out the plants we’re interested in.”
The next time you travel, consider going foraging with a guide — you’ll come away with stories of local flora, flavours, and possibly, a handful of fruit too.