I have vivid less than pleasant memories of malunggay or kamunggay from my childhood. Known as Horseradish Tree in English (Moringa oleifera), this tree is native to India but has spread to other tropical regions; in the Philippines, it grows rapidly and with ease in nearly every backyard when desired. The odd name stems from the fact that some Brits noticed the roots of this tree looked nearly identical to real horseradish and they used it on their beef as a substitute for the sharp original condiment â€“ the two are not related at all. Besides the roots, the long ribbed pods or â€œfruitâ€ are edible and often used in Indian curries, though the skin is discarded and only the pulp is sucked out in what is apparently a rather messy endeavor. The leaves are also edible and apparently incredibly nutritiousâ€¦
As a kid I used to spend summers with my grandmother in Cebu. Without fail, each lunch or dinner meal would commence with her â€œspecial soupâ€ with malunggay. Whether it had a native chicken that looked like it had spent the winter in Auschwitz, a grilled fish that was then shredded into the soup broth, or whole small sized fish, the underlying flavor of the soup and scary greenish tinge is forever burned into my memory. I did not like it. In fact, I probably dreaded it. The slimy dark green leaves had a bizarre mouth feel for an 8 year old. And worse, we basically had to finish our heaping bowl of it or we were not considered done with the meal. My grandmother lived well into her nineties and was one of the most active and healthy women I have ever known. She was also one of the first few doctors to have graduated in the Philippines in the 1920â€™s. You did not question her nutritional adviceâ€¦full stop.
Today, malunggay is consumed in huge quantities every day across the archipelago. It is added to soups and provides excellent nutritional points for very little money. A huge bunch at the market today was just PHP5 or 10 U.S. cents. And thatâ€™s just for reference as we normally just ask for some leaves from a neighbor a house or two down the street. The leaves must be used almost immediately after picking. Just throw them into the soup at the last minute or they will overcook and even more slimy!