Spicy Saag – Nettle style

Spicy Saag – Nettle style

A few days ago on facebook I wrote little post on Nettle, and how it could be used as a substitute for a recipe in Food As Medicine called Spciy Saag. Well, yesterday I went into the forest and harvested nettle, along with some miner’s lettuce (Claytonia sibirica) and cleavers (Galium aparine) which all grew in the same area. It’s amazing how many wild edibles there are, probably growing in your backyard. For this recipe, any green vegetable can be used, although Nettles are particularly favored due to their high nutrient content.  Here’s a little history on Nettle, taken from my monograph at toddcaldecott.com.

Nettle has a long history of use all over the world as a food, medicine and textile fiber. Weiss properly calls Nettle a ruderale, meaning that it tends to grow around human settlements (1988, 261). Grieve states that the common name of Nettle is derived from the German noedl meaning ‘needle,’ possibly from its sharp sting, or in reference to the fact that it once furnished thread and cloth before the introduction of flax and hemp into Europe (1971, 575). ‘Net’ is stated as being the passive participle of ne, a verb that in many Indo-European languages such as Latin and Sanskrit, means ‘sew’ or ‘bind,’ respectively (Grieve 1971, 575). Nettle was at one time highly esteemed as a textile fiber, and is highly durable, once thought to be the only real equivalent to cotton, used by the third Reich during the second world war as a textile in manufacture of German uniforms (Grieve 1971, 575; Wood 1999, 482). Beyond its importance as a fiber however, Nettle has long been regarded as an important and nutritious green vegetable, one of the first edible green growing things of spring, picked young and eaten steamed or in soups, said to be a good corrector of the bowels. The body of the famous Tibetan yogi Milarepa is said to have turned green from consuming nothing other than Nettle during his meditations. Despite being classified as a weed in many parts of the North America, Nettle was at one time highly prized commodity in rural areas, where the English poet Campbell recounts of his travels, “In Scotland I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth” (Grieve 1971 575). More recently Nettle has been used as a commercial source of chlorophyll, and Weiss states that this color has been used in Germany as a food coloring agent for canned vegetables (1988, 262; Mills and Bone 2000, 490).

Here is the recipe for Spicy Saag, from Food As Medicine:

Saag refers to any kind of stir-fried greens in Indian cookery, prepared with the characteristic Indian spices such as cumin and black mustard seed. While spinach is most commonly used nowadays, saag can be made with any kind of greens, such as amaranth greens found in Chinese markets as hin choy and Indian markets as chaulai. I frequently use the kale and chard in my garden. To boost the nutrient content, I also add in other herbs such as fresh cilantro and fenugreek (methi), or use curry leaf instead.

1-2 lbs of amaranth greens, chopped into 1 inch chunks
½ bunch finely chopped fenugreek (methi)
½ bunch finely chopped cilantro; or, 1-2 sprigs of curry leaves
one-thumb sized piece of fresh ginger, grated
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp black mustard seed
½ tsp hing powder
2 tbsp coriander powder
½-1 tsp turmeric
½-1 tsp black pepper
1-2 tsp pink salt (sanchal)
2-3 tbsp ghee

Melt ghee in a wok or large saucepan at medium heat, and when it begins to glisten add in fresh ginger, cumin and black mustard seed. If you are using curry leaf instead of cilantro, slide the leaves off the curry sprig and into the pan. When the mustard seeds just begin to pop, add in hing, coriander, turmeric, black pepper and pink salt. Stir for a half minute and then add in amaranth greens, turning the heat up a little higher. Cook veggies for about 2-3 minutes on high heat, then reduce it back to a medium heat. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, just until the leaves turn a bright, brilliant green. Serves 2-4 people.

For variations, use different herbs and spices. Have a little gas? Add some ajwain, crushed fenugreek seed or fennel seed. Maybe today the kapha is a little thick and heavy? Add in some red chili powder. Or instead of cilantro or curry leaf, try some Thai Basil instead.

Tree of Life: Western Hemlock

Tree of Life: Western Hemlock

Among the more common trees of my area is the Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), a large conifer in the Pine family (Pinaceae).  It thrives in the cool, wet weather of the Pacific Northwest, its range extending from Oregon north into Alaska. Western Hemlock is a shade tolerant tree that is often found mixed with Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata).  It is easily distinguishable by its irregular, feathery needles that are smaller and softer than Douglas Fir needles, with a blunt tip.  Looking at the trunk, young trees have a smooth, brownish-red colored bark, whereas older specimens become greyish-brown, with deep furrows, but not as thick, coarse and reddish colored like Douglas Fir – and not papery like Western Red Cedar. Locally, we have a closely related species that grows at higher elevations called Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), and the the difference between them is subtle: Mountain Hemlock has larger, open cones, whereas the cones on Western Hemlock are smaller, and more closed in appearance.

Western Hemlock is a tree of significant economic importance to the Canadian economy. Although it isn’t as strong as Douglas Fir, nor rot-resistant like Red Cedar, Western Hemlock still finds use as a building material and as a pulpwood for paper. For the First Nations peoples Western Hemlock was an important plant, more often used to make tools and cooking implements rather than as a building material.  According to Pojar and McKinnon, the wood is fairly dense and heavy, and yet relatively easy to work with, making it useful to carve spoons, bowls, roasting spits, fish hooks and spearshafts. The tannin-rich bark yields a reddish dye, and this was used as a stain to treat wood and as a dye to color wool and other textiles.

Looking at Western Hemlock, it is certainly seems to me to be the most feminine of the three species. One of the ways you can identify the tree from a distance is to look for its drooping tip, which seems to suggest a certain demure, yielding quality. Likewise, the tree’s love of the shade and moisture, as well we the feathery appearance of the boughs is another suggestion that Western Hemlock expresses a feminine, yin quality. It is perhaps no surprise that Western Hemlock was an important woman’s herb in the local Coastal Salish tradition. For example, boughs were often used to make special huts to house that the women gathered in during menstruation. Among the Kwakwaka’wakw people of Vancouver Island, female warriors asking a boon of the god Sisiutl used Western Hemlock in their head-dress during ceremonial dances. Sisiutl is the two-headed serpent mentioned in all the Coastal First Nations mythology: an untamed deity of the earth, representing like the Indian goddess Kali, the wild darkness of nature from which all life begins. It is no surprise then that as a tree of power, it is the most prolific tree here on the west coast, with the highest growth rate of any other local conifer. On a successional level, Western Hemlock represents a maturing forest that is rich in organic material, forming a thick, forest canopy under which very few things can grow.  Its darkness is all encompassing.

One of Western Hemlock’s uses was a food, once again, representing the tree’s intimate association with the feminine quality of nourishment. Similar to herbs like Slippery Elm bark, Western Hemlock has a starchy, sweet inner bark that can be a significant source of food energy. The bark from the branches and trunks of younger trees can be easily peeled off, and the inner bark scraped with a knife. Coastal peoples including the Nisga’a and Gitksan steamed the inner bark and then pounded it into a paste to make cakes, often flavored with berries, and eaten with fish grease. In the spring, the sour tasting leaf buds are eaten as a spring tonic, and to balance the appetite.  They are naturally rich in vitamin C, and can be eaten fresh or brewed as a tea. Western Hemlock of course is also an important medicine among the coastal First Nations peoples. Like many conifers, the sap or pitch is medicinal, used as a poultice to heal wounds and burns, as well as mixed with fat to form an aromatic salve that is useful as a chest rub for colds, to massage sore muscles, and to protect against sunburn. The bark is a strong astringent, traditionally used for problems such as internal hemorrhage and bleeding, used in tuberculosis, fever, and as a wash for skin sores and rashes. With a multitude of uses, in industry and as a food and medicine, Western Hemlock truly lives up to the meaning of its scientific name Tsuga, derived from the Japanese words for tree (tsu) mother (ga): the mother of trees.

For more information on the traditional uses for this plant, search for Tsuga heterophylla at the Native American Ethnobotany Database.