Food folklore or nutritional awareness?

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Ou coné ena boucou calcium ladans’ said the man to the lady, holding up a bunch of brede mouroum. I was on my now regular Saturday morning trip at the la foire in Forest Side, next to the ruins of the ‘Forum’. The latter is supposed to have been coming up, but so far there is no sign of any move in that direction on the ground. Which leads me to wonder whether la foire is going to be permanently temporary or temporarily permanent? Anybody’s guess is as good as any other I suppose…

Only two days ago while waiting for my turn at the dentist’s I got into a conversation with a lady who reminded me of the old market building in Curepipe which, like me, she recalled with nostalgia. I could not agree more with her when she commented that ‘Curepipe ine defiguré’ rather than ‘developé’, and we shared the same view about the structure that has come up to replace the market of our memory – ‘une horreur!’ I have written about it in earlier articles and I would not like to say any more, would rather spare myself the pain of doing so.

So let’s get back to our vendors at la foire. Does brede mouroum contain a lot of calcium? And what does calcium mean or represent in the popular imagination? A lot of times I get asked by patients and parents who would have come for consultation for their children calcium-related questions such as –‘ou pas croire bizin prend un peu calcium docteur?’, ‘ou pas croire ene manque calcium ca docteur?’, ‘pas ti bon prend un peu calcium docteur?’

It’s almost as if there is an entrenched myth that calcium is the common denominator for any number of ailments especially those pertaining to what are considered to be bone problems. And there are some people who are really convinced, despite medical advice to the contrary, that they do need calcium and get it for themselves over the counter. But I have also, alas, seen some prescriptions for calcium which were not necessary.

To come back to brede mouroum, according to an online post that I came across, which describes the virtues of ‘moringa’, the following is the composition of that green:

  • 30% proteins (including all of the essential amino acids)
  • many vitamins, plenty of vitamin A, rich in vitamin C, some B vitamins B1, B2, B3
  • 6 minerals ( chrome, manganese, rich in calcium and potassium , some iron, zinc, copper) 
  • 15% fibers, 
  • oligo-elements
  • anti-oxidants (large quantity of polyphenols)

We go on to learn that Moringa oleifera is a tree originating from India but grows also in Africa, Asia, South America. It is part of the Moringaceae family, grows very fast and is resistant to drought. The adult tree can be 10 to 12 meters high, reaching four to five meters during the first year. Interestingly, it is called ‘the miracle tree’ or ‘life tree’. Most of the tree can be used, that is, the flowers, leaves, seeds.

There’s a whole load of other information that I will not go into as my focus is different. The point is that what was once considered to be the poor man’s food has now been elevated to star status through branding and marketing, and now comes at a cost for sure! We all remember the brede mouroum baton mouroum sega. It made us recall how as kids we used to dislike bouillon brede mouroum which we had to eat with rice, sometimes as a stand-alone; even more distasteful to us was the touffé version, because it was somewhat bitter. Nor did we like the drumsticks usually cooked in dal, again because of the slight bitterness, which sometimes lingered as an aftertaste. I’d better not talk about brede martin – although, many years later when I had got back after my specialization, a lady taught us to first soak the leaves in brine then cook them after thorough washing that considerably reduced the strong bitter taste. We preferred, though, to pass…

Wherever these folks may have heard about the calcium content of brede mouroum, the fact of their talking about it shows that there is a level of awareness about nutrition and concern about personal health. This should be looked at as a positive thing in these times when the greatest scourge we are facing from a health perspective is the over-consumption of fast and unhealthy foods that are driving the epidemic of what are known as the NCDs or non-communicable diseases. A majority of them could be prevented or brought under control by eating food that contains plenty of greens and fruits. We certainly have no dearth of these at any time through the year in our local markets.

The prolonged rainy period earlier this year caused some difficulties but these were short-lived. The childhood days and fussiness gone, brede mouroum now forms part of my meals regularly, as much as other bredes do too. I have even had the pleasure of plucking brede mouroum from a tall tree at a friend’s place in Bel Air, something I had never done before. Unfortunately the baton is a rare commodity these days: I once spotted a couple of bundles at Victoria Square in P Louis and told myself I will pick them up on my way back – they were by then gone! And I cannot imagine any Mauritian who does not enjoy all the types of bredes we have here, as bouillon for those suitable for such preparation, or in other recipes. They used to be the staple of our elders, and I am sure their resilience was due in large part to such and other produce which they grew themselves most times.

And don’t we remember the big ceramic pots, jars and bottles in which were stored the abundance of mango, fruit cythere, bilimbi, bibasse aachar? Not only did we consume from them, but visiting relatives use to get their takeaway share as well. I am reliving those times as I am currently enjoying and sharing (receiving too!) home made aachar and kucha of mango and fruit cythere, and there seems to be no dearth of bilimbi (the ‘long’ variety) what with vendors coming from the hotter areas. Regretfully, bibasse is no more part of the scene – nor the jars and pots of yore either.

As for fruits, three big avocados for Rs 100, two juicy passion fruits for Rs 25, etc – I mean, do we have any reason to complain? Especially when practically everyone will be carrying a smartphone?

It turns out that from a health and medical point of view the so-called poor man’s food of the days gone by are what’s best. There is nowadays the issue of residual pesticide levels, but I trust and leave it to the professionals in the field to address this: after all it concerns them and their families as well.

All told, empirical folk wisdom is as valuable as ever…


* Published in print edition on 21 February 2020

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