In the Meitei mythology, the deity Panthoibi is said to have used the nongmangkha plant to cure her beloved Nongpok Ningthoi who has been taken ill while traversing the eastern hill range of the Nongmaijing Ching. This was something I heard through a programme aired on the All India Radio (AIR), Imphal but I do remember that saturdays were a day when we were refrained from plucking from the plant. It was said that the spirits/gods resided in the bush of the plant and should hence be avoided.
The nongmangkha is an evergreen shrub. The plant thrives easily in the climate of Imphal and does not need much extra care. The leaves are a deep glossy green which turns a shade lighter during the flowering season in spring. It flowers in spring around March. The blooms are orange in colour. The plant is valued as a cure for cough and sore throat. Both the leaves and flowers are edible and apart from being a medicinal plant, it is also a delicacy. It tastes bitter.
In feasts, the leaves of the plant are used to make the bitter black-ish dish called suktani. This preparation is a compulsory item in any big feast but in the domestic kitchens, it is not usually a popular one. In fact, it is very rarely (read, never) prepared for a family meal where other preparations are more popular. As a medicine, the leaves are boiled and the warm concentrate left behind is drunk. Another usage is to use the leaves in steaming. I have tried neither – and maybe that is why I continue to love this plant as a delicacy. The idea of drinking that bitter concentrate sounds as exciting as the ‘healthy’ juice of bitter gourd. So no thank you!
I do like other preparations. The leaves can be chopped and fried crisp; or, better still, dip the leaves as whole in a thin batter of besan (flour of either gram or pea), salt (chillies, optional) and deep fry it. You can add other spices in the batter as you please, but a little bit of salt and a pinch of chilli powder is more than sufficient for the crunchy snack.
The flowers are usually consumed while in its bloom season. it is prepared as a stir fry with peas and potato. But nothing can beat the juicy bitter-sweet taste of the fresh seasonal blossoms – sweet because of its nectar. I like to eat it with the typical Meitei paste of roasted red chillies, salt and roasted fermented fish mixed into a thick paste. For a vegetarian diet (which is not a very popular preference in the Meitei palate), the fish can be replaced by herbs (spring onion, chinese chives, hooker chives, etc.) toasted in oil. For the Meitei tastebuds, the vegetarian substitute is not really a substitute!
The leaves are perennial but the blooms are seasonal and usually consumed during the flowering season. Since we have a bush that blooms gloriously while in season, my mother dries them. We would carry polang bamboo baskets, perch it on the bushes and pluck the flowers. It is then washed, drained, dried and ready to be used anytime.
The orange blooming variety is more common but there are other varieties. The red-blooming variety has slightly darker leaves but appear similar and also seem to have similar medicinal properties. This vareity is not very common and is considered more of a wild flower. It is known as lam nongmangkha. Apparently, there is also another variety with white blossoms. I have not yet come across this one and have no idea how it is used but it has been identified as malabar nut. I have however seen another plant with white blossoms which I have been told is nongmankha ashinba (sour nongmangkha). Although identified under the same name in local termninology, the flowers are very different. This last variety has been identified as Indian pellet shrub. (the identifications here follows the www.flowersofindia.net)