While attending a wedding reception the other evening, I was drawn into conversation by another guest sitting next to me. Talking of this and that, we drifted onto the subject of natural organic food. I was surprised to discover that the gentleman had never sampled nature’s bounties that grew wild, but when eaten, tasted as good - if not better than exotic restaurant food. I could see the horror on his face, when I told him about my experiences with wild stuff that could be transformed into culinary wonders. As dinner was announced, I was more than amused when my new found acquaintance hurried for the buffet table as if eager to get away from someone, with bizarre tastes.

Having been brought up in a house surrounded by a spacious difficult-to-maintain garden and a summer destination on the outskirts of Murree (which was once a pristine, quiet and ‘dignified’ hill station), I and my female sibling (my elder brother cautiously stayed clear of us) had ample opportunity to ‘muck’ around fearlessly in what many would rate as jungle or wilderness. As far as I was concerned, my adventures were abetted by my grandparent, who thought that children should be allowed to explore, which is perhaps a reasonable explanation for my footloose nature.

In an early memory, I find myself snacking on leaves, fruit and flowers of the Nasturtium plant (which later achieved distinction as an exotic ingredient in gourmet salads) and sucking sweet nectar from the rear end of the trumpet-like small flowers that bloomed in our Gardenia hedge. I remember a well-meaning cousin who, on seeing this activity, rushed indoors in panic, shouting that I had taken poison.

A spot at the back of our house was home to a prosperous growth of the succulent Aloe Vera. My mother would harvest the sword like leaves and after skinning them, make a delicious ‘halwa’ like confection that kept us safe from all winter ailments. We ate copious quantities of ‘Sohanjana’ (Moringa) flowers and fruit. The former was cooked in yogurt and made into a wonderful spicy dish, while the latter was pickled or fried after boiling and eaten as a salad.

It was in spring that we prowled around the overgrown compound, looking for ‘Cholai’ and ‘Mako’ plants. Mixed together and cooked, they emerged as an unforgettable part of our lunch menu. Our eagerness to harvest these plants stemmed from the fact that they invariably grew together and we could eat the ‘Mako’ berries, which during the ripening process turned from green to red and finally deep purple. When fully mature, these looked and tasted like miniscule tomatoes.

Our table boasted, and still does, out-of-the-box stuff, like ‘Kebabs’ made from wild fig or ‘Goolar’ a dozen variations of ‘Kachnar’ (found aplenty in Margalla Hills). A dinner guest once asked me as to the source of the excellent mince in the ‘Shami Kebabs’. He looked at me in utter disbelief, when informed that it was not meat that he was eating, but mashed ‘Goolar’.

Driving in rural Islamabad, I see a profusion of thistle bushes lining the roads. I feel disappointed that this gift of nature is going to waste instead of being harvested for food. It may appear strange or even bizarre, but peeled Thistle Stems are edible when properly prepared, for cooking in a certain manner removes the toxins that this plant produces. I know of an indigenous tulip species that flowers in certain spots around Rawal Lake, the bulb of which are picked and eaten by local youngsters as ‘Meetha Ganda’ or Sweet Onion.

During my impulsive tours of the hills around the Federal Capital, I saw clumps of white feathery flower clusters in a shaded glade, a few kilometers past Karor village. On closer inspection, I detected a faint aniseed like aroma, which prompted me to perform the time-tested method to see if the plants were toxic or otherwise. I returned home carrying a fresh bundle of wild aniseed, which when added to roasted potatoes produced a prize winning combination. Oh! By the way, I am disinclined to share ‘the time-tested authentication method’, but would advise those intent on embarking on a culinary adventure to surf the internet for edible plants and where to find them.