Orchids are the most beautiful and preferred plants by florist and passionate home gardeners. The beautiful flowers have seduced the artists and poets for generations. Interestingly the word orchid is derived from the Greek word ‘orchis’ which means ‘testicles’ probably referring to the bulbous roots. The family of orchids is one of the largest and most diverse in the flowering plant kingdom. Botanist estimate that the orchid family comprise of 25,000-30,000 species with wide range of size, colour and shape. These beautiful plants grow on different substrates. Some derive their nutrition by growing on trees (epiphytes), several other grow on rocks (lithophytes) and a large number grow in soil. Different folklores are associated with orchids. In certain parts of north east India, orchids are a symbol of love and fertility. During certain festivals garlands are made of beautiful flowers of certain orchids and used in religious ceremonies.
The Himalayan region is a hotspot for a variety of orchids. Bhutan is no exception. The rich traditional knowledge of Bhutan which has been perpetuated for centuries by the indigenous and local communities is a living testimony of understanding and using the rich biodiversity of the region. A variety of wild plants are used as food, fibre and medicine for generations. The use of the biodiversity in food has sustained the indigenous people who live in remote mountains, wherein reaching such places would take a couple of days of walk through the thick virgin forest.
The local population in Bhutan knew the importance of orchids in the ecosystem and have developed mechanisms for their sustainable harvest. Due to the beautiful flowers they attract lot of insects, birds and bats. More than eighty percent of the pollination of orchids is by insects. Farmers even now cultivate orchids like Cymbidium sp. in crop fields on bunds and around farm houses. They not only serve as food but also provide lot of environmental services like, facilitating pollination, prevention of soil erosion, pest management in crop husbandry by the birds and predatory insects.
Orchids are used as food in different parts of the world and vanilla is a classic example which has been used as a spice and flavouring agent for centuries. The edible parts are leaves, tubers and bulbs. In Bhutan amongst the many available orchids Cymbidium sp. is a delicacy. In local language it is called as ‘olachotho’ and is available in the local market during the months of August to October. The inflorescence or the flowers are the edible part. The psuedobulbs are also eaten like potatoes with salt but are not available in the market as it is not very popular. But in the villages people do consume the bulbs.
Orchid cuisine in Bhutan
The most common method of cooking Cymbidium sp or ‘olachotho’ in Bhutan is with cheese. The flowers (unopened or opened) are separated from the inflorescence and washed with water. The cleaned flowers are bolied in water for 10 minutes till it gets slightly soft. The local cheese is added in required quantities along with salt and chillies and simmered for 5 minutes. The dish is ready and goes very well with local brown rice. Cheese in an important ingredient in the Bhutanese cuisine and they add cheese very liberally! It has a slight bitter taste which is relished by the local population.
As a connoisseur of food, I have tried cooking this orchid in a different way to ward off the bitterness and it tastes good. The method is quite simple. Separate the flowers from the inflorescence clean them and keep in a bowl. In a pan heat 2 table spoons of edible oil, add half teaspoon of mustard seeds and allow them to splutter. Chopped onions, chillies garlic and tomatoes are added (to taste) to the oil and cooked till the onions and garlic turn golden brown. To this mixture half teaspoon of turmeric powder is added and mixed well. The orchid flowers are now put into the spicy mixture and cooked for 10-15 minutes. Add salt in required quantities according to the taste. It has to be served hot and goes well with rice or bread. The bitterness disappears in this method and tastes yummy.
There are lot of folklores about the medicinal properties of orchids. Some believe that it has aphrodisiac properties while others believe that it can be used as an oral contraceptive. There is a need for more scientific research to establish these facts and rediscover the traditional wisdom for the welfare of the humanity.
Dr. A. Thimmaiah works with SNV Netherlands Development Organization as Specialist in Organic Agriculture and advises, National Organic Program (NoP) of Ministry of Agriculture, Royal Government of Bhutan.