Book sheds light on a threatened practice in Bengaluru city: Urban foraging

Meant as a guide to edible plants growing in the wild in the city, the book also suggests how town planners can keep the tradition alive.

ByPrutha Chakraborty

Published May 14, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdatedMay 14, 2023 | 9:00 AM

Chasing Soppu.

Only a few people going about their daily business in bustling Bengaluru notice the edible plants hiding by the sidewalks, or sprouting in and around roadside drains and the city’s lakes.

Nor would they notice the women — most of them hailing from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds — who gather these plants for food and medicine, and even for use in cultural practices.

They are Bengaluru’s very own urban foragers.

As a practice, urban foraging is not limited to Bengaluru; its followers are found around the world, gathering edible plants from private or public spaces to minimise any environmental impact.

While it is mainly a lifestyle choice for them, it is a necessity for Bengaluru’s urban foragers; the plants are widely available and are free.

And, as microbiologist Dhruthi Somesh says, they also “add to the dietary diversity”.

“These foraged plants are packed with vitamins and other essential nutrients,” says Somesh, adding “They can play a key role in battling malnutrition.”

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Chasing Soppu, the book

Somesh, a Bengaluru resident pursuing a PhD at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment in Australia, should know; has co-authored a book on the subject.

A caricature of Sidappa Talaghattapura collecting 'soppu'. (Supplied)

A sketch of Sidappa Talaghattapura collecting ‘soppu’. (Supplied)

Working alongside her on the book project were Harini Nagendra, head of the climate centre at Azim Premji University; Ranjini Murali, a researcher at Humboldt University in Berlin and a former interdisciplinary scientist at Azim Premji University; Rohit Rao, a cartoonist with a degree in environment and sustainability from Australian National University, and Seema Mundoli, faculty at Azim Premji University.

Published by the Azim Premji University in April, the book is titled Chasing Soppu, the word “soppu” means leafy vegetables colloquially in the city.

The book can be accessed on the university’s website.

Packaged primarily as a guide and a cookbook showcasing the wild plants, Chasing Soppu also shares stories of women foragers, mainly middle-aged or elderly.

And in the process, it warns of how foraging for edible plants is being threatened by rampant urbanisation and lack of access to green spaces in the city.

It also suggests how the practice can be saved from fading into oblivion.

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Birth of a project

Somesh’s interest in Bengaluru’s wild flora took root in 2019 when she spotted luxuriant growths of green in the cityscapes and felt the need to document the plants.

Ranjini Murali. (Supplied)

Ranjini Murali. (Supplied)

It was then that she approached Harini Nagendra, and found her to be equally interested in the same plants.

“Harini and Ranjini Murali, her colleague at Azim Premji, had seen people collecting these plants from the lakes, and felt it was important to document them,” Somesh tells South First, explaining the birth of the book.

The project involved gathering information over three months — from November 2019 to January 2020 — through interviews with residents from four sites “across a gradient of urbanisation”.

Initially, the information the team gathered was supposed to be part of a research paper that was published in the Journal of Urban Forestry and Urban Greening in January 2021.

But the wealth of information gathered goaded them to turn the collected data into a book.

Plus, as Murali says, the team wanted to make the research “more accessible to the public”.

“There is a diversity of knowledge and species in our city, and through this book, we wanted to celebrate both – the amazing knowledge of these women and the rich diversity of the flora.”

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What the data showed

According to the research paper, 16 percent of respondents reported they foraged, most of who were women (97 percent) belonging to socially (90 percent) and economically (81 percent) disadvantaged groups.

A caricature of Puttamma Ajji with 'soppu'. (Supplied)

A sketch of Puttamma Ajji with ‘soppu’. (Supplied)

As for the plant species foraged, 76 percent across the four sites were for food, 26 percent for medicine, and 18 percent for cultural practices.

The cultural practices that the study refers to include offerings, decorations, and musical instruments.

The team’s focus was on plants that are wild or feral in nature. “These plants are not grown, but are collected from forests, fallow agricultural land, lakes, unused plots, parks, etc.,” Somesh says.

Some can also be bought in the small local markets.

The researchers found that among Bengaluru’s neighbourhoods, foraging is most prevalent in peri-urban areas like Talaghattapura and Siddhapura, located close to the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens.

Unused land and parks are the most common foraging sites.

“Plants like Ondalaga/Indian pennywort and Honagonne/joy weed are collected from lakebeds, wild fruits like wood apple and jujubes are collected from forests, and several species of wild green are collected from fallow lands,” she says.

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A tradition threatened

The foragers they interviewed said any ecological knowledge they have is traditional and had been passed down to them from their previous generations.

Dhruthi Somesh. (Supplied)

Dhruthi Somesh. (Supplied)

“They were well-versed with where, when and how to collect the plants, having been taught to identify and collect plants by their families, mostly their mothers and grandmothers” explains Somesh.

There were also foragers who picked up the ropes from their neighbours and friends.

And yet, ironically, lack of knowledge regarding the collection and use of foraged species is one of the main reasons why foraging as a livelihood is increasingly under threat today.

Researchers found that these women now want to stop or limit foraging activities, and they have identified seven primary reasons why.

The most cited reason was lack of knowledge about which plants to collect, or what to do with the foraged ones, says Somesh.

Lack of access to the spaces that had these plants, not being interested in collecting them, health concerns, lack of time, and prior negative experiences, are other factors impacting the practice.

“All these reasons can be connected to urbanisation,” Somesh explains.

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The book’s suggestions

It is against this backdrop that the book highlights the need to redesign urban environments to create green spaces for these plants to flourish.

A caricature of Shivamma Banashankari collecting 'soppu'. (Supplied)

A sketch of Shivamma Banashankari collecting ‘soppu’. (Supplied)

Moreover, these spaces should be “made accessible to marginalised communities, for their nutritional and cultural well-being”, it says.

While a part of the book is a guide to these wild plants, it also discusses the benefits in terms of providing healthy diets as well as the positive effect on the environment.

The plants have vitamins and other essential nutrients and can also play a key role in battling malnutrition, but that is not all, says Somesh.

“Locally sourced food will also reduce the pressure on the agricultural fields in the peri-urban areas,” she says. “It will also reduce the carbon footprint associated with producing and transporting food.”

In the book, the foragers have shared tips on how to prepare these greens and fruits, the number of times to wash them, and how to do the washing.

They have also suggested the types of leaves to be used, says Somesh.

For instance, “young leaves for palya or stir-frying, more mature leaves for the curries”, and the pulses to be paired with them — “moong dal with kashi soppu or American black nightshade”.

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The visual effect

Rohit Rao, who was interning with Nagendra at the time the project was undertaken, has played a crucial part in the making of the book.

Rohit Rao. (Supplied)

Rohit Rao. (Supplied)

The field visits and stories of the women foragers inspired him to not only draw the book cover but also contribute with illustrations — of the foragers as well as the wild plants.

“We met an assortment of characters while doing our fieldwork and the drawings were my attempt to encapsulate them and the stories they shared with us,” Rao tells South First.

The catalogue of the plants and the recipes recorded in the book are “all a direct product of people’s life experiences and stories”, he says.

One of the drawings depicts women selling these plants out of their baskets on a side of the road; Rao calls them “local legends”.

He also identifies them: foragers and grocers Puttamma Ajji, Shivamma from Banashankari, and Sidappa from Talaghattapura.

“They are the carriers of knowledge, and their stories are directly impacted by rampant urbanisation,” says Rao.

“There would be no paper, no book without them, and they need to be advocated for.”