Dangsum – Greens Gone Wild
In Arunachal Pradesh, there is a strong connection between people, the land and the bounty it provides. In the absence of wide scale commercial farming and supermarkets, it is common to grow some hand-planted produce in one’s own back yard. And wild-harvested foods are plentiful too – without being considered exotic. Here, going to the forest to pick some naturally growing greens is like tapping into any other food source.
Coming back for a second home stay in Bomdila, I really looked forward to the food especially one curly green vegetable which I had assumed was a local spinach variety. I loved the taste and crisp texture. So what was it exactly?
“Dangsum”, my host told me, like it was the most normal thing in the world “are edible wild ferns. They grow all over. Anyone can take them.”
At first I thought to myself, “wow, ferns…” but then it dawned on me how urbanized and hence how out of touch I was with nature’s pantry. This realization inspired me to seek out this indigenous food that tasted so amazing.
Ferns thrive in rich, moist soil near shady stream banks, wooded areas and forest fringes and are thus very abundant in Arunachal Pradesh. In Bomdila, Dangsum is the name for the unfurled new leaves of a fern. The part gathered and eaten is the young, tender shoot with the curled tip.
Dangsum is seasonal and the best time to gather is in the spring. Given the number of similar-looking but inedible wild ferns here, foraging for Dangsum is a task requiring a trained eye. Luckily, an uncle of ours who knows how to tell the Dangsum apart agreed to help us find it.
Only minutes into our drive, he stopped the car next to a low fence. The field beyond bristled with bright green ferns. Reaching down between some nettles, he pointed to a 15 cm tall stalk with a tightly coiled rosette on it.
“This is Dangsum. You can tell by the groove here”, he said confidently as he fingered it.
Eager to see how the Dangsum is prepared, we drove back to town where we purchased two bundles of it from a roadside seller.
Naturally, the first step is to wash it thoroughly. Then, remove any remaining chaff and cut off the stems.
Next, heat some ghee in a wok. Add chopped onion, red chilies and salt to taste. Fry the Dangsum over medium heat for several minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve with butter – they are simply superb!