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ASIA COOKING ETHNOBOTANY EUROPE POLAND

Kharet, rząsy and pua… Can we digest pollen? Will hazel and cattail cakes become a new-old hip health food?

7th March 2021

I wonder why so few foragers ask about pollen. Actually, the view on the nutritional availability of pollen to us varies extremely among nutritionists and I wanted to systematize it by quoting the available few sources.

In the nineteenth century Poland’s poor peasants had a term przednówek, i.e. “before-the-new” for spring starvation or food shortages. They were saving on the last stores of grain by collecting hazel  (Corylus avellana) catkins covered by pollen (technically they are male inflorescences). These catkins were called rzęsy or rząsy (local name for eye-lashes). They added them to bread dough. This usually happened in March (or even February) but, later at the turn of March and April, people would also consume male catkins of sallow (Salix caprea) which were supposed to be good against colds (Łuczaj 2021).

Another pollen plant used for foraging is cattail (Typha). It produces a lot of pollen which has been used in some countries for food, i.e. in the Middle East, south-east Asia and by Maori in New Zealand and Native Americans in both North and South America (Prendergast et al. 2000). Also maize pollen was collected by the Indians  (Prendergast et al. 2000)

Pollen is very rich in nutrients. The pollen of insect pollinated plants is more nutritious than this of wind pollinated plants but is much scarcer (Linskens and Jorde 1997). According to one study pollen contains 11% fat, 36% carbohydrates and 23% proteins, being similar to dry pulses (Linskens and Jorde 1997).

Typha dominegenis pollen is widely sold in southern Iraq round the confluences of the Tigris and Euphrates. This pollen mixed with sugar and steamed is known as kharet and sold in the souks of Kuwait (Prendergast et al. 2000).  Typha is also known as food among the Maori of New Zealand, known there as pua (Prendergast et al. 2000). Maori would wrap leaves around the mixture of cattail pollen and water and steam it in a hangi (an earth oven). Colenso (1881) described the cooked cake as “sweetish and light, and reminds one strongly of London gingerbread”.

Pollen walls are made of two layers: intine and exine. Exine is extremely hard, but can have apertures: they are regions of the pollen wall that may involve exine thinning or a significant reduction in exine thickness. They enable shrinking and swelling of the grain caused by changes in moisture content. The digestive enzymes can enter pollen walls only through the apertures. Franchi (1997) carried out experiments on the digestion of hazel (Corylys avellana) and poppy (Papaver rhoeas)pollen. They were based on in vitro digestion with enzymes and environments similar to human digestive system (pepsin, papain and diastase, pancreatin and pancreatic lipase in optimial pH conditions). Hazel has relatively thin intine. After 24 treatment only 3% carbohydrates and 59% proteins in hazel pollen were digested. This shows the small availability of carobohyrates and relatively high availability of proteins. Only high pH treatment with pancreatic enzymes has an effect, whereas the acidic pH of stomach does not affect pollen.

Let’s look at bees, As Roulston and Cane (2000) write “Pollen digestion has been studied most extensively in bees, but a complex and somewhat confusing set of interpretations has emerged. Adult bees possess a crop, in which nectar and pollen may mix, thus providing a pre-treatment that could lead to germination or pseudo-germination. The crop leads through the proventricular valve to the gut, a region that differs substantially in osmotic pressure from the crop. Thus, pollen consumed by adult bees is subjected to immersion in a sugar solution followed by an abrupt osmotic gradient. In contrast, larval bees have no crop. Pollen enters the gut without internal exposure to nectar sugars or sudden changes in osmotic pressure. The pollen consumed by larval bees, however, is part of a food provision including a large quantity of nectar. Thus, larval pollen has been exposed to a liquid sugar environment prior to ingestion. For most bee species, larvae consume the pollen within a few ways of pollen collection. For honey bees, however, pollen may be stored in the hive for an extended period of time.”

The best way to enable the digestion of pollen is to cause germination and pseudo-germination by cracking pollen walls by osmotic pressure. No wonder in Iraq cattail pollen is mixed with sugar. Bees do it similarly storing the pollen with nectar. In Poland hazel catkins were used in sourdough bread which may also have had an effect on the digestibility of the pollen. The conclusion is the interior of pollen grains can be accessed by humans and partly digested. It can probably be highly increased by creating a high osmotic pressure storing the pollen in sugar (confirmed by traditional use) or salt (my hypothesis).

If you want to read about other Polish famine food, you are welcome to buy my book:

Literature

Prendergast, H.D., Kennedy, M.J., Webby, R.F. and Markham, K.R., 2000. Pollen cakes of Typha spp.[Typhaceae]-‘lost’and living food. Economic Botany, 54(3), pp.254-255.

Arenas, P. and Scarpa, G.F., 2003. The consumption of Typha domingensis Pers.(Typhaceae) pollen among the ethnic groups of the Gran Chaco, South America. Economic Botany, 57(2), pp.181-188.

Morton, J.F., 1975. Cattails (Typha spp.)—weed problem or potential crop?. Economic Botany, 29(1), pp.7-29.

Franchi, G.G., Franchi, G., Corti, P. and Pompella, A., 1997. Microspectrophotometric evaluation of digestibility of pollen grains. Plant foods for human nutrition, 50(2), pp.115-126.

Linskens, H.F. and Jorde, W., 1997. Pollen as food and medicine—a review. Economic Botany, 51(1), pp.78-86.

Roulston T.H. and Cane, J.H., 2000. Pollen nutritional content and digestibility for animals. Pollen and pollination, pp.187-209.

Colenso, W. 1881. On the vegetable food of the ancient New Zealanders before Cook’s visit.
Transac- tions and proceedings of the New Zealand Insti tute 13: 3-19

Łuczaj, Ł. 2021. Foraging in Eastern Europe: Wild edible plants in Polish traditional cuisine. Pietrusza Wola.

Many thanks to Kim Walker for sharing her photo of hazel catkins.

ASIA ETHNOBOTANY FOOD ANTHROPOLOGY

Seven Spring Herbs

8th January 2019

On the seventh of January, the Japanese celebrate a special holiday, nanakusa-no-sekku 七草の節 (The Festival of Spring Herbs), which marks the end of the New Year festivities. Nowadays, most Japanese people buy these plants in the supermarket only once a year, but until quite recently these wild weeds were collected throughout the winter and spring on an everyday basis. The tradition originally concerned the seventh day of the lunar year but was moved to the seventh day of the European calendar, which means that in some areas in the North it may be more difficult to collect these species for the Festival. However, most of Japan has quite a mild climate and some weeds can still be found in the fields in winter, only temporarily covered by snow.

Haru no nanakusa is served as a simple rice gruel with boiled herbs (nanakusa-gayu). The number seven is very important to the Japanese and has magical connotations. Usually the following plants are mixed in nanakusa:

  1. seri 芹 (せり) (Asian dropwort Oenanthe javanica ssp. stolonifera) – beware that the European dropwort O.croccata is extremely poisonous, whereas its Asian counterpart can be eaten)
  2. nazuna 薺 (なずな) (shepherd’s purse Capsella bursa-pastoris) – a common weed throughout Eurasia
  3. gogyo 御形 (ごぎょう) (jersey cudweed Gnaphalium affine)
  4. hakobera 繁縷 (はこべら) (common chickweed Stellaria media) – a common weed throughout Eurasia and beyond
  5. hotokenoza 仏の座 (ほとけのざ) (henbit dead-nettle Lamium amplexicaule)
  6. suzuna 菘 (すずな) (field mustard Brassica campestris ssp. rapa), now called kabu (蕪)
  7. suzushiro 蘿蔔 :(すずしろ) (radish Raphanus sativus var. hortensis), now called daikon (大根)

There may be deviations from this list in different parts of Japan, depending on local traditions and the plants’ availability. For example, mugwort Artemisia sp. can also be used. According to some sources, the custom came from China, but I could not trace it back properly.

On the morning of January the seventh or on the eve of this day, a spoon for eating rice and/or a wooden mortar are placed on a chopping board, indicating an auspicious direction, and a song with the words: „before birds from the Continent come to Japan, we are going to collect nanakusa” is sung. The herbs are chopped while chanting.  

This film shows hitting the weeds with seven kinds of tools:

And another film:

Shepherd’s purse is one of the most widely collected and eaten wild vegetables. It’s not always wild. It can easily be grown from seeds and cultivated like a normal vegetable. It’s especially popular in Shanghai, where you can easily buy ji cai hou dun dumplings. There’s also a beautiful legend to do with Shepherd’s purse that was what first brought me to China.

I was always fascinated by this country. When I was three, I tried to learn Chinese characters. Later, I became very interested in the Chinese art of Feng Shui. When temporarily living in Norwich, England, I rented a room to a Chinese student, who taught me Chinese. This made me regain my interest in this place and two years later, in 2005, I bought a flight to Beijing. However, my main destination was a suburb of the ancient city of Xi’an, a place called Hanyao. I had read about the Hanyao legend in a book called “Road to Heaven. Encounters with Chinese Hermits” by Bill Porter.

Here’s the legend: Wang Pao Ch’uan was the youngest daughter of a prime minister from the T’ang Dynasty. He wanted to marry her to a politically suitable man, but she kept refusing all of the candidates. Eventually, her father made all the men who wanted to ask for her hand gather together, and she was supposed to climb the Great Goose Pagoda and throw a ball of silk from it.

Great Goose Pagoda in Xi’an

The man who would catch the ball would become her fiancé. She saw a poor traveller, P’ing-kuei, standing in the crowd. She had met him the day before and threw the ball to him. But her father did not respect her choice and the young couple had to leave the palace. They were forced to settle in an empty cave in a loess cliff that was formerly used for making pots. Unfortunately, a war with Tanguts from the North broke out soon after they had settled there, and P’ing-kuei joined the army. One of the prime minister’s sons-in-law organized a trap and P’ing Kuei was captured and imprisoned by the enemy. In spite of receiving the news of her husband’s death, Pao Ch’uan faithfully waited for his return. P’ing Kuei came back 18 years later to find her collecting shepherd’s purse. She had been eating it all the time throughout those long 18 years. Now the place is a small Daoist temple, and inside it a wax figure cabinet which depicts the story. They are also meant to serve shepherd’s purse dumplings, though I couldn’t find any when I was there in September 2005.

The gate of Hanyao in 2005

A loess cliff in Hanyao, a very typical feature of central Shaanxi landscape
One of hermit huts in the cliff
A cleaning lady guided me around
This is where Wan Pao Ch’uan lived
A holy pine tree
Wan Pao Ch’uan and her husband
A Demon House from Hanyao
Another part of the Demon House story