Nat Bletter toils at making gourmet chocolate for a living, but his true passion is foraging for food on sidewalks, in public parks and on hiking trails, harvesting delicious tidbits most other people would reject as weeds.
You learn fast when spending time with foragers like Bletter to never utter the word “weed.”
“A weed is just a plant people don’t like,” says Bletter. “It is a plant out of place.”
“The word weed connotes something negative when many so-called weeds are fabulous food resources, “ says another forager.
Bletter is among the growing number of Hawaii residents who reduce their food bills and have fun by foraging for food in unexpected places such as parks, trails, back yards, even the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus.
Bletter defines their urban foraging as finding produce from plants and trees that other people walk right past because they fail to see it as edible food or they simply doesn’t want it.
I joined Bletter last month at the University of Hawaii Manoa on one of the urban foraging tours, which he conducts during the year for Slow Food Oahu.
Bletter, with his doctorate in ethno-botany, knows plants. He used his botanical knowledge to help create Madre Chocolate, Oahu’s only bean- to-bar chocolate company.
One of the first edible items he showed us on the UH tour was something that looked to me like a nasty weed invading a section of the lawn by Sinclair Library. It turns out the low-lying plant was edible, a tasty green called purslane.
Purslane is known to non-foragers as pig weed. Its scientific name is Portulaca oleracea but is known in various American communities as little hogweed, red root, pursley, and moss rose. Bletter says it has sneaked its way into gardens all over Oahu.
Bletter says purslane is a delicious addition to soups, stews and salads. Chopped up, it makes bland scrambled eggs sing.
Honolulu Magazine calls purslane “The culinary world’s newest darling.”
From time to time, Otsuji Farms and some others sell purslane at Oahu’s farmers’ markets.
Molly Solomon , a Hawaii Public Radio reporter who was on the foraging tour, was amazed. As she was fingering a small bunch of wild garden cress we found thriving next to the purslane, she said, “It’s kind of fun finding all these edible things I thought were weeds.”
As we zig-zagged through the Manoa campus, Bletter pointed out more than 20 edible foods that were free for the picking. Among my favorites was an orange day lily growing in a flowerbed behind the Campus Center. Bletter says the delicate day lilies are delicious stir-fried. With their bright orange petals, they can glamorize even the most boring green salad.
Another favorite find was gourka, a luscious-tasting fruit from the mangosteen family. Bletter pointed out a tree heavy with gourka fruit near Bachman Hall. One of the members of the tour group shinnied up to the high branches of the tree and shook down the fruit for us. Soon our hands and faces were dripping with gourka juice as we munched away on the sweet-sour fruit with its buttery consistency.
Bletter carries a fruit picker with him on his expeditions to harvest gourka and other high-hanging fruits. A fruit picker and a bag to carry foraged foods are the only items needed for most foraging expeditions.
“The most important thing I learned is I don’t look around me carefully enough.” — Beppie Shapiro
I also enjoyed eating sweet seeds from the tamarind trees we passed near the UH Art Building, and the funky inside of baobab tree pods that Bletter pointed out tastes like the freeze-dried ice cream astronauts eat on their missions into space.
Beppie Shapiro, a former University of Hawaii faculty member along on the foraging tour, says, “The most important thing I learned is I don’t look around me carefully enough.”
When Bletter looks, there is food everywhere.
With our current affection for locally grown food, Bletter says foraged food is as local as you can get. You find it right in front of you without having to use fuel or what Bletter calls “ food miles” to drive to a farmer’s market to buy the local food.
Bletter, who originally is from New York City, says during summers in the city he used to get almost half the food he needed by foraging in Central Park and other nearby parks.
Now he lives at the back of Palolo Valley where he says forages for most of his fruit and some vegetables.
Bletter admits it would be difficult in Hawaii to forage for all the food a human being needs to survive.
Sunny Savage, a forager who lives in Haiku, Maui, calls Hawaii “a forager’s paradise.”
“From the mountains to the ocean, you have such a diversity of ecosystems and abundance of wild plants available all year around,” she says.
But Savage also admits there is not enough wild food in the Hawaii to keep a person alive.
“I look at foraged food as supplemental,” she says. “Foraging is a wonderful way to put some diversity in your diet. You treat yourself to foods you would never find in a supermarket.”
One of her favorite foraged items is Jamaican vervain, also known as porter weed or rat’s tail, with its tiny purple flowers, which she says grows almost everywhere. Its flowers are elegant and delicious in salads.
Savage says, “The beautiful purple flowers have a slight mushroomy flavor and I use them on salads and everything else I am eating…including sweet dishes because they are just so gorgeous.”
Savage has self-published a book entitled “Wild Food Plants of Hawaii,” which she expects will be available on Amazon in a few months.
This will be the first Hawaii-focused foraging book since Euell Gibbons wrote his classic Beachcomber’s Handbook in 1967. Gibbons spent a year on Oahu, living off the land, eating wild bananas, breadfruit, coconuts, avocados and many kinds of fresh-caught fish.
Savage says since Gibbons wrote his book many other plants that are good for foraging have sprung up in Hawaii.
When talking about foraging, it is necessary to talk about food safety.
Savage says, “Never put anything in your mouth unless you are 100 percent sure of its identification. I treat it as a respect issue. Be sure to respect plants enough to know what they are.”
Bletter says it is also a good idea to be respectful to plant and tree owners when foraging. He says fruit growing on tree, which is dangling over a public sidewalk, is technically legal to grab but “that’s not necessarily going to win you friends with the tree’s owner.”
Bletter says when he wants to pluck a fruit or vegetable hanging out over a street or sidewalk, he asks the tree owner’s permission. Then, if Bletter uses the foraged fruit to make jam, he often will bring a jar of jam as a gift to the tree’s owner.
However, Bletter says if the fruit or vegetable has fallen out of the tree on to public ground and nobody has picked it up, then that’s fair game for foraging.
If you want to learn more about foraging you can get in touch with Slow Food Oahu to find out when Bletter will be conducting his next tour. And you can keep an eye out on Amazon for Sunny Savage’s new book.
Savage says, “If you can learn just 10 different plants to forage, it will bring you great pleasure.”
“My main message,” she says, “is don’t go overboard. Just figure out what is growing around you and enjoy it.”