Real Food Encyclopedia | Moringa
It’s little wonder that the moringa is sometimes called the “miracle tree:” its leaves, seeds, and seed pods are all edible and packed with nutrients, and the hardy tree thrives even in dry, hot conditions. Its seeds produce a healthy cooking oil that never goes rancid, and various parts of the plant are being studied for their medicinal properties. Because the tree is edible for people and animals, various governments and nonprofits are trying to establish moringa on small farms around the world as a way of helping farmers make more money while also providing their communities with a delicious source of nutrients.
Because of its nutritional properties, powdered moringa has become a popular health supplement worldwide. But as the plant expands around the world, more and more people are having the opportunity to eat the delicious leaves and pods, even in colder countries where it’s grown in containers.
Fun Facts about Moringa:
- Moringa is known in India as the “drumstick tree” after the long shape of its seed pods.
- Moringa extracts have a wide variety of medicinal benefits, and are being investigated as anti-cancer agents, antidiabetics and antimicrobials.
- Moringa trees grow very vigorously: under ideal conditions, some growers have reported that the plants can grow more than 20 feet in a single year.
What to Look for When Buying Moringa
If you find fresh moringa leaves at the farmers’ market or grocery store, try to select deep green leaves where the small leaflets are still attached to the stems. Pods are less available outside of warm regions where the tree can grow outside year-round, but if you do find them, look for pods that are about six inches in length, green, and still relatively tender. Pods can be bigger and still edible as long as they are not dry. Older pods with mature seeds aren’t edible, but you can use the seeds to cook.
Sustainability of Moringa
Because of its multiple uses, drought tolerance, and ability to provide a cooler microclimate for other plants, moringa is a key player in traditional agroecological farming in India and Africa, and is being incorporated onto regenerative farms in tropical regions worldwide. Because the plant grows quickly and establishes an extensive root system, it can store large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Meanwhile, its leaves can be eaten by both people and animals, as well as being used as a green mulch for some crops.
Because of its ability to thrive on poor soils and its popularity on organic farms, moringa is frequently grown without chemical fertilizers. Some growers may use manure. Many of the bitter compounds that make moringa nutritious to humans make it unpalatable to insects, so trees have few pest problems. Pesticide use is therefore uncommon.
If you’re concerned about chemical use, look for organic moringa products, or look for fresh moringa from a local farmers’ market. Buying your moringa from a local source gives you the chance to ask the farmer about what they’re growing.
In warm, wet areas, moringa is an evergreen, so leaves are available year-round. If the plants are grown in cooler areas in containers or as an annual, they will only be in season while the plants are actively growing from the spring through the fall. In tropical areas, moringa pods and seeds can be available year round, though they may be more common after the plants bloom heavily in the early summer.
There are many species of moringa that are native to Asia and Africa, though the most widely grown by far, Moringa oleifera, originated in Northern India, where it is widely grown as a vegetable, medicinal plant and source of animal feed. While other species of moringa have been cultivated throughout Africa for millenia, Moringa oleifera is a more recent introduction, and is more commonly eaten by people. The plant has been introduced to warm-weather regions worldwide, and is rapidly gaining popularity on regenerative farms in Central America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Despite its warm-weather origins, moringa trees can be grown much further afield in places with cold winters, either as a container plant or a small shrub that is overwintered indoors and replanted annually. Moringa can be successfully grown this way as far north as upstate New York, where farms supply locally grown leaves to farmers’ markets in New York City. While these plants still produce lots of leaves, it needs a longer growing season to make pods or seeds.
Because moringa leaves tend to fall from their stems over time, it’s a good idea to separate the leaves and store them in a sealable container if you aren’t going to cook them soon. If you do plan to cook the leaves soon, you can wrap them in newspaper or paper towels and allow them to separate from the stems in the refrigerator. In either case, try to use the leaves within a few days.
Pods can be stored in an unsealed bag or container in the refrigerator for several days, but they will lose their texture and flavor over time.
To use the leaves, you’ll need to strip the leaflets off of the branched stems. To save effort, some cooks recommend wrapping bunches of leaves in newspaper for a few hours before cooking — the dry newspaper will encourage the leaves to separate from the stems with just a light shake. You can also pull the stems through the holes in a strainer or colander, leaving the leaflets behind.
The leaves can be stir-fried or stewed much like spinach, although they are much more nutritionally rich. They can also be cooked with lentils into delicious dals and curries. In West Africa, where moringa has become very popular, fresh leaves are ground with spices and other ingredients into a rich sauce for meats and other foods. Moringa powder can be substituted in many of these recipes as a shortcut. In Senegal, moringa leaves are combined with powdered peanuts and served over couscous in a dish called mboum. Moringa can replace spinach or other cooked greens in many western dishes, like this quiche.
Powdered moringa leaf is also popular, and it can be added to green smoothies, sprinkled on savory dishes, and even added to baked goods like muffins for an extra serving of vegetables.
Fresh pods, sometimes referred to as drumsticks, are traditionally added to curries in India and other areas where the fruit is popular. Pods can also be sauteed or stir-fried in place of green beans in many recipes. Smaller pods can be cooked whole or chopped into large pieces, though older, stringier pods will be easier to eat cut into chunks and partially peeled.
If you buy pods with mature seeds, you can scrape them out and eat them roasted, though they can have a laxative effect in high amounts, so don’t eat too many in one sitting. Moringa seeds are frequently pressed into a high-quality cooking oil, though this is difficult to do at home without specialized equipment.
Leaves and pods can be frozen for longer term storage, though they will be wilted once they are thawed, so this is only recommended if you are going to cook them in a way where a soft texture is desired.
Moringa leaf can be dried at home for longer term storage. After washing the leaves, place them in a dehydrator. If you don’t have a paper bag, you can do this by placing the branches in a paper bag and keeping it in a warm, dry place. From there, you can also grind the leaves into a DIY moringa powder.
The moringa plant is a nutritional powerhouse, providing high amounts of Vitamin C, Vitamin E and calcium. Compared to many other leafy vegetables, moringa leaf is also very high in protein. Pods are very high in both protein and fiber. Leaves, pods and seeds all contain high amounts of heart-healthy oils. Moringa also has a number of complex compounds, phytochemicals, that promote health through their anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and anti-cancer properties.
Although some nutrients like Vitamin C don’t survive processing well, dried moringa powder is a concentrated source of certain minerals, like calcium, phosphorus, potassium and iron.
Top photo by Claudio Baldini/Adobe Stock.