Five years past, I was raking around the backyard of my Kahului rental when one tree caught my eye. It wasn’t much of a tree so much as a gnarled stump in the sand that had been cut to ground level. But it had life in it, long slender branches covered in small, oval shaped leaves and foot-long seed pods sprouted from the weathered stump. “What kind of tree is that?” I asked my landlord. “Ho, dat one? Wat you call one man on da moon?” “Huh”, I said confused. “You call him moon guy!” Oh, Kalamungay, also known as Moringa Oleifera, or just Moringa. This amazing tree is native to the Himalayan foothills of northwestern India and is widely cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical regions, like Maui.
Once I had a name to place with the tree, I began to notice them growing all over Kahului, mostly in home gardens of Filipino households. “Mom, you ever heard of kalamungay?” Her excitement was evident through the computer screen, “Oh yeah, you have Kalamungay there? You can eat that! I haven’t had kalamungay since the Philippines.” “Oh,” I said, “How do you eat it?” She told me how to prepare the leaves like spinach for stews, curries, sautés, and stir frys, or raw in a salad or made into a tea. The flowers could be eaten as well she exclaimed, and make a pretty garnish on green salad. “How about the pods, can you eat those?” “ Yes.” She spoke of how my grandmother used to take the young, supple seed pods and use them in place of long beans. Mom also said the older, hard green seed pods could be eaten. “We would crack them open and take the seeds out. The soft ones you can eat like peas, and the hard seeds you can roast like nuts.” She said my grandfather used to clean water with seeds from the old, dried brown pods by crushing them into a powder, and adding the powder to dirty brown water. After stirring and waiting a few minutes, the powder would settle at the bottom of the container, pulling everything that made the water brown with it, leaving clear water to be skimmed off the top. “You can even eat the root,” Mom said, “Your auntie used to shred it and make it like horseradish.”
Who knew? Apparently Mom loves moringa! And why not – you could practically eat or use ever part of the tree. For a leafy green vegetable, Moringa leaves are high in protein, amino acids, and vitamins. According to the USDA National Nutritional Database, 100g of raw Moringa leaves contains 9.4 g of protein, where as spinach has 2.86 g and kale has 4.28 g. Moringa’s high quality protein is easily digested due to the quality of its amino acids. In a study by Moyo et al in 2011 (for the African Journal of Biotechnology), Moringa leaves were analyzed and found to contain 19 of the 20 common amino acids. Of those 19 amino acids, 10 were classified as essential amino acids including methionine, which is a powerful antioxidant that can help protect the body from radiation. The leaves are also a rich source of calcium, magnesium and iron, and vitamins A, B and C. The seedpod, although not as high in nutrients as the leaves, also provide a wide variety of minerals and vitamins most notably, calcium, potassium and vitamin C.
Moringa’s balance of vitamins, minerals and amino acids have many health benefits that help regulate blood pressure, increase energy throughout the day without extreme highs and lows (typical of energy drinks or supplements), relieve stress and improve your overall mood. Moreover, the amazing amount of iron and zinc in Moringa helps deliver more oxygen to the brain and regulates the activity between its left and right hemispheres.
Although I am not an expert in Moringa, Mom’s enthusiasm for the tree she’s known as kalamungay and the wealth of scientific peer reviewed studies I found online, I do know Moringa has got to be one the most underrated superfoods around. It may even be growing in your garden (see photo) and you didn’t even know you could be eating it and enjoying its many amazing benefits.
Image Credit: John Astilla