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Moringa: The Next Superfood in Vegan and Gluten-Free Kitchens

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Traditional food turning trendy.  That seems to be way food is changing for the modern kitchen – and the moringa is no different as it takes the stage as a healthy and tasty choice for vegan and gluten-free recipes.

The moringa tree, also known as the moringa oleifera is native to northern India and is typically found at the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. One of its biggest advantages is its ability to survive in dry and arid regions where rainfall is limited.  The barren conditions of the environment do not affect its growth and at the same time, the moringa tree can grow in a wide range of soils.  Cultivation also happens in old and depleted pasture lands or ones that are bordering on desertification.

Farmers in India, Africa and all the way across to Mexico and Central America have taken advantage of its hardiness.  Why? A perennial crop and pest resilient tree, the moringa tree, also known as the drumstick tree, can be used from root to leaf. The tender leaves along with its fruit – the moringa seed or drumstick – have been in Asian kitchens for years. The tree can grow up to 20 feet, but even as a younger tree its leaves can be harvested for consumption.  The flowers look like pea flowers with five stamens, which are held to one side of the flower while the fruit is long and explosively dehiscent, consisting of three parts with some winged seeds. The moringa tree’s roots are edible, possessing a flavour similar to horseradish.

The various parts of the moringa tree are also used as a forage crop or fodder for animals.  The leaves have a high protein content that is used to feed chickens, with a possibility of helping them produce healthier eggs that have bright orange yolks. Farmers also harvest the seed pods and feed them fresh to cows, goats, sheep or other large animals. 

Moringa as food and medicine

As a cheap crop, it is no wonder that poor farming or peasant communities pick it as a sustainable food source.  What is also interesting is that drying the plant – leaves and pods – allow retention of minerals and vitamins. As a practical approach to fight malnutrition, food programmes in India and Africa include the moringa crop to feed communities.  The pods or drumsticks can be prepared similarly to green beans, while more mature seeds are removed to be roasted like nuts or cooked like peas.  Leaves are cooked like spinach, while some producers dry the leaves and grind them into powder as a condiment.

Medicinal benefits of the moringa have been explored by cancer researchers. A 2017 study published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention found that the extract from moringa leaves have the chance to act like an anti-cancer agent that reduces cancer cell growth and promotes cell death in several cancers. Apart from this, eating moringa leaves may be able to help fight diabetes risk. This study found that 30 women had their blood sugar levels drop by nearly 14% just by consuming one and a half teaspoons or seven grams of moringa leaf powder daily for three months. A general review of using the moringa found that it possessed antioxidant qualities, anti-inflammatory properties, as well as help protect tissues and tackle hypertension.

If you’re looking to boost your vitamin intake, you may also consider moringa. The US Department of Agriculture found that one cup of freshly chopped leaves contained protein, vitamin A, B6 and C, iron, magnesium and riboflavin. Some of these minerals found in that dose of moringa leaves represent about 20% of the recommended daily intake for a healthy diet.  This list in the meantime highlights the nutritional value of the drumstick with equally healthy doses of magnesium, protein and more.

Cooking the moringa

While not new to traditional kitchens in Indian, Asian or African households, the moringa is another ingredient to be popularised as a superfood by the modern and healthy eater.

Eating moringa powder can be likened to having a peppery version of the green tea.  Some authors also found similarities with matcha but with a touch of spirulina-like profile. When you dissolve the green powder in water, it produces a distinct green bittersweet flavour.  Use it in your juices, yoghurts and smoothies.  The slightly bitter taste comes from glucosinolates or known as mustard oils.  These are the same compounds that make cruciferous vegetables slightly bitter, think about chewing on broccoli, cauliflower or Brussels sprouts and that taste comes to mind.

There are plenty of ways to cook with the moringa leaves or pods. You could vary your fibre and green leaf intake with moringa leaves in this recipe for thoran.  Temper curry leaves, chillies, mustard seeds, shallots in coconut oil, cover and steam until cooked. Season to taste and add fresh coconut.  Eat with dhal and rice. Or add it to clear soup in your favourite vegetable stock, guaranteed to be healthy comfort food.

Or try a cup of moringa tea to reap the benefits as a source of vitamins and minerals.   Fresh leaves are prefered, but the powdered version will work just as well.  Brew with hot water.

If the curry classic appeals to you, you may also choose to use the moringa pods to make a healthy, gluten-free vegetable curry with this recipe which uses a basic Goan-style curry paste made up of ginger, garlic, coconut, chillies, tamarind, cumin, coriander and turmeric.

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