The return of Bali’s lost ‘superfood’

Traditionally, most Balinese family compounds were protected with a moringa tree. It was a highly nutritious food, medicine and a magical talisman all rolled into one. Over the course of recent decades, it came to be considered as merely peasant food – and as part of old mystical superstitions. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, as the workforce of Bali’s crashed tourism industry returned to live off the land, people once again began to latch onto the benefits of the marvellous tree that grows like a weed.

Having heard about moringa’s spectacular nutritional benefits, my wife and I started eating it on a daily basis during the pandemic. It grows freely in the west Balinese village where we lived, and we quickly realised that it was incredibly versatile as a cooking ingredient.

Eaten alone, moringa leaves are reminiscent of peppery spinach but Balinese cooks typically add a variety of freshly pounded local herbs and spices to the simmering vegetables to serve as a leafy stew. We dropped raw leaves into smoothies; cooked them in omelettes, soups, stews and curries; and chopped them to create delicious, peppery seasoning for egg mayonnaise sandwiches and salads.

I planted two 6ft cuttings and within a year and a half they were taller than our two-storey house. Much of our fence line became a living, edible fence of moringa.

Despite the fact that the plant is freely available almost anywhere on the island, you’d rarely, if ever, see it as an ingredient in warungs (local eateries), let alone on a tourist menu. However, a few chefs, perhaps tempted by a nutritious and flavourful ingredient that is freely available, are reviving the tradition.

Moringa features on the ever-changing menu at the increasingly famous tourist spot Rasta Café Medewi in the west coast surf-town of Medewi. “I try to cook whatever local produce is in season and moringa is almost indispensable in that it’s available year-round,” said Nafisha Dewi, the café’s chef, as she prepared soup made with moringa leaves, pumpkin, aromatic ginger (known sometimes as sand ginger), garlic, shallots, candlenut, chilli, coriander, lemongrass and coconut milk.

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