The bounty of a harvest

September 3, 2023

Thar has much to offer, including several varieties of nutrition-rich vegetables

The bounty of a harvest


he people of Thar anxiously await the arrival of the monsoon season, not just because it brings much-needed water to the Tharparkar desert but also because it brings a variety of vegetables indigenous to the area.

After a week of rainfall, the desert transforms into a vibrant landscape filled with these vegetables. In the morning, groups of women venture into the fields in search of these unique and mouth-watering delicacies. They are also sought after by families in Hyderabad and Karachi who have them sourced from Tharparkar, says Satoo, 52, from the village of Aklo in Taluka Diplo. She, too, sends vegetables to her family and friends in the city.

Residents of the Thar desert see annual rain showers as a blessing. The sounds in Tharparkar are especially soothing: the tinkling of small and large bells around the necks of the cows, goats and sheep; the chirping of birds, the bleating of goats and mooing of cows; the screams of peacocks in the courtyard or on the peak of huts.

Each region offers fruit and vegetables indigenous to the region; Tharparkar is no different. The kair, for example is similar to a berry; a peelu is comparable to a grape. There are a few popular herbaceous vegetables, but the bagro comes close to spinach in appearance and texture though not taste. The chibhar and chahanyon resemble melon and watermelon, but only in appearance.

The following list describes the fruits and vegetables – known as duth in the local dialect – that are available in the region before a rainfall.

Kair in the local language, Capparis decidua, is a small, many-branched tree or shrub. Its branches are slender and greyish-green in colour. It bears pink fleshy berries that are readily eaten by birds. Unripe berries are also used for preparing curry. The plant is also used in traditional and herbal medicines.

Khabar or jaar tree, salvadora oliodes, is a small shrub with dense branches on which colourful peelu fruit can be found. The grape or berry-like fruit tastes very sweet. The peelu requires a lot of heat to ripen. It is common to find people rushing to collect peelu early in the morning. Thari people preserve the peelu to use year-round because, they say, it contains nutrients which help maintain good health. They use the leaves from the jaar tree for fodder for camels.

Sangri, bean-like pods, grow in a tree called kandi in the local dialect, which is the prosopis cineraria tree. This is a popular vegetable used in curries. In its raw form, it is also a favourite with the cattle.

Duth refers to vegetables found in the wild. These include roots, shoots, leaves, flowering plants and fruit. At one point, it was the main source of food in times of acute food insecurity. According to Noor Ahmed Janjhi, a research scholar on folklore and folk literature, duth includes mushrooms, pipoon, kondeer, mareero, salaro, bagro, chibhr, meha chanhan, kandi pods, peroon, kirer flowering and donra.”

“In the past, people used to remain close to nature and eat indigenous food which had so much nutritional value that it kept the disease at bay,” says Sonu, a 70-year-old farmer. “Despite my age, I still work in the field. But many people today have drifted away from nature and rely heavily on hybrid foods and find themselves vulnerable to various diseases. We need to reconnect with nature and embrace the richness of indigenous foods for a healthier and more sustainable future.”

“We need to reconnect with nature and embrace the richness of indigenous foods for a healthier and more sustainable future.

People in this region often identify fruits and vegetables as before and after the rain. The following is the list of produce that appears after the rain.

Caralluma, common name Pip/ Pipaan/ Pipun; mushroom commonly known as khunbhi; amaranth, common name Mariro; and false amaranth, locally called Lular.

Caralluma, an edible succulent plant from the Asclepiadaceae family, is a shrub that grows in the form of clumps with several leafless branches. It has a sour taste. It is often sprinkled with salt to make it tastier.

While a mushroom is a fungus and not a plant, it is considered an edible vegetable. It grows alone and can be seen scattered across the desert. It cannot grow during rain or in cloudy weather. Not all mushrooms are edible; some may even be poisonous. Locals know which ones to use to make their favourite curries, including one that makes the mushroom taste like fried chicken. This is a popular vegetable in Thar.

Thari teenagers are known to wander the desert early in the morning in search of non-poisonous mushrooms. It is the only time to collect mushrooms as they spoil once exposed to direct sunlight. Once they return home with their mushrooms, they wash them thoroughly to remove sand or dust and cook them in oil or ghee.

Tharis like to cook mushrooms in degra (pot local to their area) or handi (clay pot). First, they fry chopped onion till brown, then they add red chili powder, turmeric, salt and mushroom along with some water to cook. It takes 15 to 20 minutes to cook this meal. It is typically is served with phulka bread and lassi.

Thari people also use mushrooms to make biryani, which is special to this region.

3. Amaranth is an herbaceous plant which grows above the ground. It bears leaves similar to spinach and is cooked in the same style. Local people believe that it is especially suited to aid digestion.

Bagro and lular are herbs that are boiled and eaten fondly. Thari people usually cook lular with onions.

Chibhar, cucumis melon, is usually boiled and cooked just like any fresh vegetable, but Thari people love frying these to have as snacks. They are also dried to have as snacks.

Chhanhyo or karengya, is a small watermelon. Like chibhar, it is cooked as a vegetable. They are often cooked together, too.

Thari people also use cucumis melon, chhanhyo, and cluster beans together to make a mix dish.

While traveling to Tharparkar during the rainy season, one will come across children carrying plastic bags filled with these vegetables to sell to travellers. Markets are especially bustling when these vegetables are in season.

“There has been significant research on organic food in India, says Ali Akbar, a dedicated social activist working with the Aware NGO.

“They have studied the nutritional value of naturally grown vegetables and fruits, as well as promoted indigenous foods. Unfortunately, we do not see such practices in Tharparkar. If Thari people know which foods contain iron, zinc, B12, etc., they can incorporate them into their diets to combat malnutrition and ensure food security. It is important for academies, institutions and the health and nutrition departments to work on studying the nutritional value of indigenous foods in Tharparkar. This will help preserve and promote these foods and allow local people to benefit from consuming them according to their nutritional value,” he adds.

The writer is a teacher and climate and human rights activist. X handle @ChandaniDolat

The bounty of a harvest