Forgotten Food: Close encounters with the Cissus quadrangularis, or pirandai

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Commonly known as the adamant creeper, square stalked vine, veldt grape and devil’s backbone in English as well as by regional names such as the hadjod or “bone setter”, the Cissus quadrangularis is a resilient succulent vine that is as distinct in its appearance as it is in its wide-ranging ethno-medicinal properties.

This is the conclusion of a three-part series that chronicles the history of lesser-known regional Indian ingredients and dishes, and highlights their importance in micro cuisines — #ForgottenFood.

Read part one, about the eenthu panna, here; and part two — on the Decalepis hamiltonii — here.

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“If you use pirandai in its raw form, your throat and fingers get itchy so there’s always a fight in my kitchen as to who prepares it. Many of these plants have similar properties that often exist to protect them from their predators.” Pondicherry-based founder of Maiyam Past Foods Vijhay Ganesh M’s preoccupation with ancient south Indian culinary techniques may have resulted in him bringing overlooked ancient grains, legumes and vegetables to the plates of diners at his concept restaurant, but these insights have been gained with the underlying knowledge that even good things must be administered in moderation. “Pirandai is excellent for issues such as knee problems but I feature it on my menu once a week,” he says.

The key to the potency of every food, according to Ganesh lies in its processing, which goes on to determine the quality of its assimilation. The challenge, he adds, is in straddling the fine line between removing potentially poisonous compounds and reaping medicinal benefits while incorporating these ingredients into regular dietary practices. Tamarind proves to be nature’s handy neutraliser and Ganesh mentions how the “general practice with pirandai is to cook or soak it with tamarind — or something sour — or sesame oil to balance all these adverse effects”. These counteractive methods, according to him, often change “every few hundred kilometres”.

A perennial plant of the Vitaceae family that comprises 14 genera and around 910 known species including common plants such as grapevines, the Cissus quadrangularis or pirandai (as it is known in Tamil) is a succulent vine native to tropical Africa, Arabia, India and Sri Lanka. More common names such as the adamant creeper, square stalked vine, veldt grape and devil’s backbone hint heavily at both its distinctive appearance and resilience. Attaining a height of about 1.5 metres, the Cissus quadrangularis, as its botanical name suggests, has quadrangular-sectioned branches with internodes that are about 8 to 10 cm long and 1.2 to 1.5 cm wide and a leathery winged edge can be found along each angle. When ripe, racemes of small white, yellowish or greenish flowers appear and its globular berries acquire a red tinge.

While many joke that the appeal of cultivating the Cissus quadrangularis as an ornamental plant lies in the fact that it is infamously hard to kill, its aggressive pervasiveness can actually be seen as threat to insular ecosystems where it is seen as an invasive species. Its tenacious vine spreads both horizontally and vertically, climbing over trees and shrubs, covering them entirely, blocking light and thus restricting the growth and regeneration of native plants.

The groundbreaking Dutch botanical text Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, Continents Regni Malabarici apud Indos celeberrimi omnis generis Plantas rariores, 1678-1681 — more commonly known as the Hortus Malabaricus — which is generally considered the oldest comprehensive printed book on the medicinal plant wealth of Malabar lists the Cissus quadrangularis as one of among 554 plants whose medicinal uses were known to physicians at the time. The curative properties of its leaves were noted to have played a role in curing intestinal gas and ear scum.

The ethnomedicinal benefits of the root and stem extracts of the Cissus quadrangularis have been long acknowledged by Ayurveda and the plant has been mentioned in ancient scriptures as a general tonic and analgesic. Its osteo protective properties can be credited for its Sanskrit name asthisamharaka, which literally translates to, “that which protects the bones from destruction”.

Vernacular Hindi names such as hadjod or “the bone setter” are also testimony to its traditional use as a medicine to accelerate the process of bone fracture healing. Rich in calcium, magnesium and the antioxidant resveratrol, the plant facilitates bone cell growth and regeneration. Veterinary practices to a similar effect have been observed by Saneesh CS, a PhD research scholar of biodiversity in the grassland ecosystem, who works in the Chittoor and Anantapur districts of southern Andhra Pradesh. The area, according to him, has a number of local Ayurvedic practititioners. He says, “A paste made of the plant is often used to heal fractures. In Chittoor and Anantapur, most people are shepherds so if a sheep or goat has a fracture, they make a paste and apply it to the broken limb and fasten it tightly with a cotton cloth.”

All photos by Saneesh CS. Taken in Thamballapalle, Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh.

While Ayurveda may be considered one of the forerunners of devising uses for all parts of the Cissus quadrangularis, its uses are widespread in areas of occurrence such as Africa and Thailand where it is one of the most commonly used medicinal plants. Its uses in these cultures range from treating female menstrual and menopause-related conditions to being relied on for its antiulcer, antihaemorrhoid, pain-relieving and wound-healing properties. It is considered a valuable antimicrobial agent, useful in maintaining good gut flora, combating bacteria and promoting digestion.

Chennai-based cookbook author Sabita Radhakrishna’s own introduction to pirandai was through her domestic help — “a resourceful woman who would pass by a field and be able to distinguish between what is good and bad. She brought me pirandai maybe 10-15 years ago, and said that it was often mistaken for a weed but people in south Chennai were growing it.” Her anecdote brings to light another interesting fact — that of a reliance on native intelligence while cooking with wild foods and often overlooked plants.

The preparation of ingredients such as pirandai is not as whimsical as it is dependent on honouring time-tested techniques that ensure its correct consumption, resulting in only a handful of ways in which it makes an appearance. The thuvaiyal or thogayal is one such mainstay that features across communities in Tamil Nadu and Tirunelveli-based cookbook author Hazeena Seyad says it is a typical dish enjoyed by the Ravuthar community to which she belongs. Rarely available in markets, she states that the pirandai is usually sourced from, ‘’your garden or your cousin’s garden”.

Seyad states that the tangy thuvaiyal serves as a palate cleanser of sorts and is usually a healthy balance of sweet, sour, pungent and spicy flavours. The fibrous part of the plant is cut into small pieces and fried in oil until it acquires a dark char, to rid it of its itch-inducing properties. Coconut, dried red chillies, garlic and tamarind then follow suit and are given the fried treatment following which they are given a blitz in a mixer grinder. A slight amount of water may be added to bring it all together, but Seyad issues strict instructions to ensure that the mixture retains a coarse form. A small piece of jaggery is added towards the end and she warns of the presence of “stringy bits attributed to its fibrous nature,” but this, she reassures, is how it’s meant to be eaten.

Traditionally made in the traditional ammi grinding stone, the thuvaiyal held its pliable texture and was fashioned into a ball that was served as a lunchtime accompaniment to rice, or with idlis and dosas as a sort of chutney. A unique way in which the Ravuthars enjoy this thuvaiyal is during Ramzan with a bowl of nombe kanji.  Seyad adds that pirandai rasam is another community favourite.

Chennai-based senior journalist Sampath Kumar remarks on the age-old religious beliefs and rituals that are tied to the pirandai for the Brahmin community. “On the day of a death ceremony, we have to feed two or three Brahmins, so we serve them pirandai thogayal and it acts as a catalyst for digestion. During death ceremonies, food and sweets are prepared with a lot of oil and these may cause indigestion. This thogayal gives relief.” Kumar also touches upon the shastras or guidelines that govern the ancient scriptures and practices followed while feeding Brahmin priests. “We normally make as many as six to seven preparations to feed Brahmin priests but it is said that if you prepare a pirandai dish, it is equivalent to offering 100 vegetables. The belief is that the more vegetables you serve them, the more satisfaction your ancestors receive.”

As awareness of the ethnobotanical and traditional uses of natural compounds gains momentum, Seyad reminds us of the many, easily accessible “herbs and medicinal plants grown in our houses or available on the roadside.” A self-proclaimed “city girl, born and raised in Coimbatore until marriage”, she admits that her own dietary habits changed while living with her in-laws in Tirunelveli. Their preferences, she explains, are in sync with the seasonal dictates of “country living” while also trying to ensure that the food they consume is medicinal. Radhakrishna adds that as people consciously try to integrate the lay of the land into their diets, “there is already a marked revival of lesser-known foods, which means we’ll now begin to focus on learning how and where to get a regular source.”

Jehan Nizar is an independent features writer and food blogger based in Chennai, India. Her work most often explores food as a point of convergence for history and anthropology and has appeared in national and international publications including The Wire, The Wire Science, Firstpost, Whetstone Magazine, PEN America, The Spruce Eats, and Gulf News. She formerly wrote a food column for Asiaville.

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