Call it by its Filipino names: malunggay, kalumungay, marungay. Or perhaps by its Western nicknames: drumstick tree or horseradish tree. Moringa is the scientific name of this delicate, leafy plant, commonly tagged nowadays as up-and-coming.
The Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival threw moringa a coming-out party last week with a cooking competition at an event called Crops & Hops, dedicated to Hawaii’s emerging farm products.
Moringa has been growing in recognition as a nutrition-packed food source, but also for its health benefits, said to include reducing inflammation and blood-sugar levels.
“It’s an emerging crop and it has superfood qualities, but a lot of people don’t know about it,” said Denise Yamaguchi, chief executive officer of the festival. “We thought it would be good to showcase it.”
Moringa was also available in a quantity large enough to ship to the 17 chefs around the country who wanted to create recipes for the cook-off. Three finalists were chosen to prepare their dishes and compete for a $3,000 top prize.
In Hawaii, the most common moringa sighting is in Filipino chicken-papaya soup, where the pretty round leaves add a bright herbal bite.
“I grew up with this,” said contestant Eric Oto, chef at Hoku’s at the Kahala Hotel & Resort.
Oto’s dish went far beyond chicken soup, though. It included 28 ingredients, with the leaves used in a fermented tea salad, the pods simmered with dried shrimp, and moringa powder mixed with salt to dust fried shrimp. He also made a refreshing moringa iced tea.
The other two contestants — Antonio Tommasi of Maccheroni Republic in Los Angeles and Michael Ginor of Lola in Great Neck, N.Y. — were new to moringa; both used it in pasta.
“This is my first time,” Tommasi said. “I love it. Actually I’m going to plant a tree in my yard. I love to work with fresh things.”
He said the moringa used in his tagliolini “gives pasta chew.” His dish, topped with a complex sauce that incorporated moringa powder, coconut oil and macadamia nuts, took first place.
So, what does it taste like? Very distinct, grassy, Tommasi said. “When you chew it, it leaves a little spiciness on the tongue.”
Earthy and a little bitter, Oto said, noting that the root can be grated like horseradish.
“It tastes like its own vegetable,” Ginor said. “It reminds me a little of curry leaf. The way you’d use it is similar.” He used moringa powder to made gnudi, a dumpling, topped with a saffron tomato sauce.
THE MORINGA used by the chefs was supplied by David Wong of Mountain View Farm in Waianae, an evangelist for the crop, or as he puts it, “I’m kinda like a lone wolf in the forest.”
Mountain View was a dairy farm for 40 years, but now produces pigs and Asian vegetables using Korean biodynamic natural-farming processes — no fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides.
Wong introduced the farming method with 4-by-6-foot planter boxes, and asked his crew what they’d like to grow. Most were Filipino, he said, and they opted for marungay. He now has 10 acres planted in the crop, much of which he ships to a Dallas wholesaler who sends it on to major U.S. cities.
Wong said the clean growing process improves the plant’s nutrient density and the shelf life of the leaves, which are normally highly perishable.
He considers his crop to be a pilot study, and is also having the plant processed into powders, tablets and oil. His goals are to show that moringa can be produced in consistent supply and quality using natural methods, to help identify its health benefits, then go into “quantum production.”
Wong is careful not to make medical claims, as the plant has not yet been scientifically studied in great depth, but he is personally convinced. “The medical benefits of moringa are thousands of years old, but virtually unknown,” he said. “The thing I’m trying to help promote is that this choice is within our hands.”
AT THE University of Hawaii, researchers agree the potential for moringa is significant. Theodore Radovich, an associate specialist with the Sustainable and Organic Farming Systems Laboratory, said studies are underway evaluating moringa genotypes for seed, oil and leaf production when grown at various locations and elevations, as well as under various soil, temperature and rainfall conditions throughout the state.
It’s early to come up with conclusions, Radovich said. “However, from our data so far, we believe that moringa has the potential. … Slow and steady growth is expected to continue.”
Fresh moringa is sold in many supermarkets. Powdered moringa and supplements are sold at natural foods stores such as Down to Earth. To order Mountain View Farm products email firstname.lastname@example.org.