Illustration by Francisco Manuel Blanco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A hardy deciduous tree between 10-12 metres tall, with many branches that reach up to form a thick foliage of small leaves. Scientific name: Moringa oleifera.

In English, malunggay is known as the moringa tree, drumstick tree, horseradish tree or ben oil tree; in the Philippines, it’s known as kalunggay in the Bicol region, kamalongan in the Visayas, kalamunge in Pampanga, arunggay in Ilocos, marunggay in Pangasinan and simply malunggay among most other Tagalog-speaking regions.

Malunggay leaves (slightly peppery and commonly used in soups and stews) are thin and oval-shaped, with leaves that grow to about the size of a fingertip. Whether stripped off their stems to use fresh in a rich broth, dried to consume as tea or powdered to mix into baked goods, malunggay leaves are a rich source of vitamin A, calcium, protein and a host of other essential nutrients, according to various sources.

Malunggay trees grow winged pods up to 30 cm long. In the Philippines, pods are nowhere near as commonly used as leaves; I did learn, however, that these ‘drumstick pods’ are used widely in Indian curries.

Inside the pods are seeds, which when left to mature, can be harvested and eaten like peas or roasted/fried as a crunchy bar snack. Pressed for its oil, moringa seeds yield a clear, odourless oil immune to rancidity, used for cooking as well as among watchmakers to lubricate the tiny gears in luxury timepieces.

Moringaling, no?

I’ve been a little listless on where to start with malunggay because sources of information on this hardy tree are surprisingly still in the early stages of documentation – so much so that as I write this, delegates from the 1st International Symposium on Moringa (held Nov. 15-18, 2015 in Manila) have likely just stepped off the stage for a talk on “Moringa: A Decade of Advances in Research and Development,” or stepped into a van for a farm tour of moringa farms in Carmen, Pangasinan and Tranca Bay, Laguna.

“The symposium aims to encourage the sustainable improvement of moringa production, market access, promotion and consumption,” announced the call for papers on the symposium’s website, “for health and vitality, industry profitability, and competitiveness in international trade.”

What a time to learn more about malunggay – a green leaf with a peppery bite similar to arugula, and zesty sharp with a squeeze of calamansi. No matter how you spin it, freshly picked malunggay leaves – clumped together with glistening orbs of chicken fat in a heady homemade broth – are irreplaceable in a bowl of gingery chicken tinola.

Further reading:

• Philippine Senate Bill No. 1799, known as the “Malunggay Development Act of 2007.” It packs a lot of information into five pages, from malunggay’s nutritive qualities to projected profits of commercial malunggay farming across the Philippines. It calls for legislation to “institutionalize the production, processing, marketing, and distribution of malunggay through a sustainable framework” and promoting malunggay trees as a “source of livelihood, means of attaining food security, and effective approach to poverty alleviation.” We certainly need more than moringa trees to end poverty, but if the plant keeps its hold on North American markets enamoured with a new superfood, money could indeed grow on trees in the Philippines, at least for some amount of time.

Crushed moringa seeds that act as water purifiers. A short read you cannot pass up for its simplicity and potential power!

• “The Rise of the Lowly Malunggay” from Far Eastern Agriculture Magazine tells us of malunggay leaves processed into noodles, cookies and pan de sal (bread of salt); a nationwide mandate to plant malunggay trees in all Philippine public schools; and of the fact that malunggay stalks (often discarded after green leaves are plucked off a branch) contain high levels of potassium, calcium and magnesium – so there’s no reason to omit them from a pot of vegetable stew.

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