Exotic superfoods you can grow

Moringa and spirulina have gone native in Israel.

Tom Vered next to a spirulina tank. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tom Vered next to a spirulina tank.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s easy to see why the word “superfood” sounds so attractive.
For the chronically ill, there’s the promise of a natural remedy to reduce symptoms and bring a little ease. For nutrition- conscious parents, it’s some kind of health product that you disguise as a milkshake or slip into the kids’ soup – what they don’t know helps them grow. A strong nutritional formula can benefit vegans looking for a dietary supplement. And some, like workers inhabiting office cubicles for long hours every day or students under pressure, don’t want to sacrifice time shopping, cooking, or even eating – they’d prefer a nutritional formula concocted in the blender and gulped down before they take off for the day.
Most commercial “superfoods” are mixtures of ingredients imported from the US or Europe. Yet Israelis can grow two exceptionally nutrition- rich foods at home: moringa and spirulina.
Although originally an African or Asian tree, the wispy moringa with its delicate white flowers grows in Israel. Immigrants and foreign workers from India and East Asia brought saplings and planted them. Strangely moringa thrives in desert conditions.
It’s found in the Judean Hills, in the Jordan Valley and at the Ein Gedi nature reserve. All parts of the moringa tree are edible, except for the bark and the tough, bark-like exterior of the roots. Its inner roots, leaves, flowers and pods have a high amount of protein, antioxidants and all the amino acids, as well as more iron than spinach.
And the high-content list of vitamins, minerals and micro-nutrients goes on.
Dr. David Makin, founder of the Moringa Propagation Company in Kfar Haim, tells us of a test that the Church World Service conducted in poverty-stricken Senegal in 1997 and 1998. Mothers were encouraged to add dried native moringa leaves to the family cooking pot. A two-month test showed that malnourished children had gained weight and health.
Anemic pregnant women’s iron became normal, and their babies had higher birth weights than infants born before the test.
“Moringa is usually eaten cooked, although tender young leaves may be added raw to salads,” says Makin.
“The flowers are also edible and taste somewhat like mushrooms, cooked.
The young pods are exceptionally nutritious. They must be steamed for half an hour, split open and then the inner pulp scooped out. Add it to other vegetables and season to taste.”
To dry moringa leaves at home, he advises, one should spread a sheet or net out and dry the leaves outdoors, in the shade. Another easy method is to dry them in a closed, air-conditioned room. They may then be powdered in an electric coffee grinder.
“The powder isn’t especially tasty,” he admits. “So I blend it with oregano or za’atar and add it to humous or tehina. A person may eat half a teaspoon twice a day; more than that may bring on an upset stomach.”
Makin testifies to moringa’s nutritive and medicinal powers, relating that since eating moringa leaf powder daily, he’s become “much sharper and more focused mentally.” In addition, his lifelong allergies have vanished, along with chronic joint pains. Free food and medicine from one skinny tree. Sounds like a good deal.
The Moringa Propagation Company gifts all visitors with a small sapling and growing instructions. www.moringa.co.il.
IN SPITE of some similarities to moringa, spirulina is an entirely different animal – or, rather, plant. Like moringa, it’s an extraordinarily rich source of fresh nutrients and contains every essential fatty acid. But spirulina is an alga. And it’s more famous. In 1974, the United Nations world food conference announced that spirulina was the ideal food for the world’s undernourished people. The tiny, spiral- shaped algae have more digestible vitamins, minerals, proteins and micro- nutrients than can be listed here.
Until now, the only way to obtain spirulina was to buy it at health food stores. But it’s actually not hard to grow fresh. As Tom Vered of Herzliya discovered, all it takes is a fish tank, some fresh spirulina to start the process, a few accessories and a sunny spot.
Vered is a designer of products for the environment and special-needs people. After several months of living in the Adamama permaculture farm, where he first became familiar with spirulina, he returned to university studies. His final project was developing a way to grow the algae at home.
“I’m vegan, so I need a good nutritional supplement,” he says. “Obviously a person can’t survive on spirulina alone, but considering how empty our foods are today, I’d say that at least 80 percent of us need a supplement.”
He believes that elderly people, pregnant women and people who are ill should definitely eat a teaspoon of the fresh green stuff every day.
“It gives you energy, like a cup of coffee,” he says. “That’s why I recommend taking it in the morning. If you take it in the evening, it might keep you awake.”
The basic equipment for growing the algae is a 30-liter aquarium, a starter liter of fresh spirulina, and a supply of nutrients. A water pump and a pH meter are necessary, too.
For guidance, the kit comes with a manual that Vered wrote. After two weeks, the tank will have grown fresh spirulina to supply a couple’s needs.
The spirulina renews itself daily, so from that point on, there will always be enough. Daily maintenance takes only a few minutes. Larger families may add another aquarium or use a 50-liter one. The daily dose is one teaspoon for adults and one half-teaspoon for children.
“Fresh spirulina has no smell or taste,” says Vered. “It’s almost invisible in food. Commercial dried spirulina can’t compare.”
According to him, the dried product acquires an unpleasant taste and loses a lot of its nutrients.
“Compare it to dried apple slices versus a nice, fresh, juicy apple,” he continues.
“Which would you prefer?” Spirulina can be added to fruit shakes or stirred into salad dressings or spreads. Vered advises against cooking it, as heat destroys some of its more than 100 nutrients. It’s best to consume it right after taking it out of the tank, but it can be refrigerated for up to one day or frozen for several months.
If you’re curious about spirulina but not willing to set up an aquarium quite yet, Vered delivers frozen spirulina all over the country, on a 14-day trial basis. www.grow-spirulina.co.il.