Saturday, March 3, 2012

Murungai on my mind

These last few days, I have been obsessed with the humble drumstick that I love to use in sambar, stew, avail and anything else - soup even.

I enjoy contentedly chewing on that fibre at the end of a nice rice-laden meal, with my plate exhibiting a neat stack of chewed up murangikai.

I am putting together some educational material on indigenous trees, and the drumstick is on the top of everyone's list it seems.

And its not for the drumstick so much as for the leaves! Click on the link and go below Ranjitha Ashok's article to find Vijayshree Venkatraman's similar mind-blowing discovery!

(I know the excitement is a bit dated, but I was always a bit backward.)

Madras Musings - We care for Madras that is Chennai

A miracle tree in your backyard?
(By Vijaysree Venkatraman)
As children, many of us hated one vegetable with particular passion and greeted its  appearance on the menu with exaggerated distaste. I reserved this treatment for the slender drumstick. The sight of the chewed-out sheath piling up by people’s plates, when they are done with the pulp within, grosses me out to this day. Some cooks use a fistful of drumstick leaves to flavour the lentil-rich adai. Others capture the characteristic aroma of these sprigs in clarified butter – a delicacy I haven’t thought about in a long time now.
But at an international conference in Boston, which I call home now, a Red Cross volunteer spoke of a “miracle tree”, which could be a possible solution to malnutrition in poor, tropical countries. Ounce for ounce, this tree’s leaves contain more beta-carotene than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, more Vitamin C than oranges, and more potassium than bananas, the slide read. The protein content is comparable to that of milk and eggs, it further proclaimed. It dawned on me that la moringa, whose virtues the speaker was recounting in French, was none other than our scrawny drumstick tree.
The scientific name Moringa oleifera comes from the Sinhalese word for drumstick. A dozen other species native to parts of Asia and Africa belong to this same plant family. “But typically their leaves taste rank or cabbage-like, and some varieties are simply obscure,” an evolutionary biologist tells me. In Mexico, he encountered the moringa once again. Here, the drumstick is an unknown culinary entity, but the fern-like foliage makes the tree an ornamental. “Perhaps it arrived long ago via the Philippines – where the vegetable is popularly known as Mulunggay – when Spanish galleons sailed between Manila and Acapulco,” the researcher surmises.
From research literature, I learn a number of facts about this tree, a familiar sight in Chennai. The moringa is drought-resistant and thrives in soils considered unfit for any cultivation. Both the leaves and the pods are edible, which makes it a good food crop. The seeds yield edible oil that can be used as a bio-fuel. The residue of the ground seed can purify turbid water. Typically, gardeners prune the moringa once a year to keep the produce within arm’s reach. Because of its soft wood, timber is the one thing this low-maintenance tree is not good for.
There is no zeal, they say, like the zeal of the new convert. I asked my parents to plant amoringa in their compound in Chennai, so that I can have a fresh supply of the greens when I visit them. They responded with an instant ‘no’, saying that it will attract the kambli-poochi.They don’t know the English equivalent of the name, but I guess that it is just a very hungry caterpillar. I was skeptical of this furry creature. Even its name seems made up.
Soon, Nancy Gandhi, a long-time resident of the city, also wrote saying that she once had to cut down her a moringa because it became infested with the kambli-poochi. When an American, albeit a naturalised Chennaiite now, mentions the dreaded pest with the funny name, I tend to believe her immediately. Still, I am certain that some veteran gardener would know a nifty solution to this problem.
Meanwhile, there was nothing left for me to do except write about the merits of the moringafor an international newspaper headquartered in Boston. In Chennai, my photographer, a middle-aged man, eagerly set out to find me a suitable image. As he roamed the streets on this mission, a helpful auto-driver asked him what he was looking for. The reply, “a pod-ladenmoringa tree,” earned him a smirk and knowing smiles from passers-by. These responses could have had something to do with the local belief that the moringa pod is an aphrodisiac.
There is no denying the moringa’s excellent nutritional profile, which is borne out by laboratory analysis, but there has been no clinical study to prove that the plant can combat malnutrition. Perhaps my article will get philanthropic foundations to fund such a study. I could save the world from hunger, I think grandiosely. And if I write about its supposed virility-enhancing qualities, some rhinos might be spared too. New England is no longer puritanical, but sneaking this last bit into the article might be hard.
One thing about my current home, however, will never change. The winters will always be brutally cold here. I simply can’t expect the hardy native of the tropics to survive in my Boston backyard. Frankly, I sometimes wonder how I manage this feat myself! Still, there is something I can do. I can write and spread the word about the dietary goodness of a tree whose produce I had done my best to avoid during my Indian childhood.

So, now is there any truth to this kambli poochi belief, that I keep hearing everywhere?
Kavitha Mandana provides first hand evidence.

KAMBLI poochis are a clever lot!
Insects seem to know more about the fabulous treasures that nature holds. Discover the drumstick tree, says Kavitha Mandana

I don’t know if you have ever had close encounters with those, hairy, horrible, creepy caterpillars that we knew as ‘kambli-poochis’ when we were young? During a particular season they would swarm all over my grandmother’s garden in Mysore. And their particular haunt was the drumstick or moringa tree. One day the drumstick tree would look normal, and the next day, its bark would be wrapped in a ‘kambli’ or blanket as thousands of these caterpillars set up home there. I could never eat my grandma’s drumstick sambhar because I always felt it had kambli-poochi fur in it!

But I now realise that those creatures were a clever lot. Yes, hidden behind all those bristles is a decent brain. Because they picked the tree with the highest nutritional and medicinal value in the whole garden! How come they know about it and we don’t? 
She goes on to extol the virtues of the murangi before concluding that -
All these days, I’ve been eating bananas for brain-food. But if moringa has more potassium than banana, I’m going to switch. I can’t bear to think that those moringa eating kambli-poochis might be brainier than me!

Now, I need to figure out what this kambli poochi is. Is it the Gypsy moth?  No it's not.  Chitra enlightened me that it was the Eupterote mollifier.  This hairy caterpillar can become quite a pest, it appears, completely defoliating the tree in extreme cases.  


  1. Mice one, particulsrly since I love both the leves and the pod. Had no idea it was moringa in English (or is it?).

    BTW, the link to Madras Musings is not working.
    You are compiling info on trees indigenous to Madras, or more than that?

  2. Thanks Kamini, for flagging the not-working link, I've corrected it. The scientific name is Moringa oleifera.

    Just making some posters on trees indigenous to our region.

  3. Have u had the flowers of the drumstick tree? I know it's not fair to eat the flowers up. You'll have fewer pods. But if you have a tree, perhaps you could tie up a sheet to the branches at night. The flowers that fall into the sheet could then be cooked and eaten. I wouldn't go through so much trouble for anything except drumstick flowers. They're absolutely delicious.

    1. No I have not Anita, I should try it! Is it like the banana flower?

  4. Funny how everything we learn now was known to our grandmothers years ago - and not just the goodness of the muringakkai leaves.
    Do visit my blog, an award is waiting for you.

    1. Yes, I agree - same thing with my soap nuts post! Thanks for the award, Raji!

  5. Good one…

  6. Hi flowergirl,

    I am glad you found my murungakkai article.
    And thanks for your research on the kambli poochii.

    Here is another version of the article, complete with a picture of the leaves.

    1. Wonderful! Thanks for sharing! And I loved your article!

  7. Moringa oleifera Lam belonging to the family Moringaceae is a handsome softwood tree, native of India, occurring wild in the sub-Himalayan regions of Northern India, and now grown world-wide in the tropics and sub-tropics.
    It is the cheapest among the Superfoods rich in protein vitamins and minerals. Surely there a good organic farming specialist can help tame the dreaded caterpillar problem.


    Fresh root is acrid and vescicant. The fresh root of the young tree is administered in cases of in intermittent fever. The root is applied externally as a poultice in cases of inflammation, as a valuable rubefacient in palsyand dropsy, and for bites from rabid animals.

    An infusion of the roots is recommended for asthma, and is useful in ascites caused by diseases of the liver and spleen.

    Root and root bark and stem bark are used as an abortifacient.

    Freshly expressed juice from the root bark and the gum is mixed with sesamum oil and is dropped into the ears in cases of otalgia.

    The paste of the root bark is used orally for urinary calculi

    The bark and leaf induce sweating used in anorexia and external ulcers

    The gum is used as an antiseptic. It is bland and mucilaginous.

    Leaves are galactogogue, refrigerant, and laxative and improve digestion.

    The tender leaves reduce phlegm and are administered internally for scurvy and catarrhal conditions.

    Flowers, irritant in action, are used to heal inflammation of tendons and abscesses.

    The unripe pods act as a preventive against intestinal worms.

    The fruit is sweet and pungent in taste, an appetizer preventing eye disorders and increasing semen both qualitatively and quantitatively.


    The bark is used as an emmenagogue. Flowers, leaves and roots are used as an anthelmintic, in giddiness, nausea, pitta disease and tuberculosis.


    Laxative, antispasmodic; leaves used externally for laryngitis

    The decoction of the root acts as a gargle, abortifacient, rubefacient, counter-irritant in rheumatic cases and in the enlargement of the liver in children (Chopra et al., 1938).

    The fruit are used for curing articular pains, tetanus, nervous debility, paralysis, pustules, patches and leprosy (Chopra et al., 1938).

  8. Hello,
    Did you finally figure out how to control the hairy caterpillars? I have a blog on agri related activities and I think with the onset of monsoons, bark eating pests may be emerging (based on a bruised bark of 1 tree).
    My blog is at
    Maybe of interest to others as well.