Our MA students occasionally get the chance to serve as an teaching assistant for some of our classes. This year Amy Wray (@amykwray) is serving as one for our Ethnobotany class. I’ve had a blast hearing her stories, and I hope you enjoy her words:
Science in the City: In Pursuit of Roots & Fruits
by Amy Wray
The “Science in the City” blog series seems to have an emerging theme: that New York City offers an unexpected bounty of biodiversity. Recently, I have been pleasantly surprised to find that the food plants offered at various markets throughout Manhattan present, quite literally, a cornucopia of biological specimens. This discovery occurred to me upon beginning a teaching assistant position for a Columbia course on the topic of Ethnobotany. My duties for this class include gathering various medicinal and food plants so that the students can see the samples and try them if they like (and who wouldn’t?). In the paragraphs that follow I will divulge my own expeditions in gathering the botanical specimens, with the goal of demonstrating an exciting type of botanical science in the city.
For my first task as a teaching assistant, I was to find paan – a betel leaf filled with spices, which is chewed as a mild
stimulant. I headed to Kip’s Bay, to a paan shop I had previously found with the help
of Yelp. I took the 1-train downtown just before dusk, arrived at my stop and then walked a half mile east. With each block I crossed, I caught a snapshot of the setting sun bartering with the lights of the Empire State Building. I arrived at the shop and walked up to the counter, and as politely as I could I requested a dozen paan. The man behind the counter joked with me, “you must be having a big party!”, and we began chatting about the ethnobotany class and complained about the weather while he prepared the paan leaves. To make them, he took a large heart-shaped betel leaf from a bowl, brushed lime paste to bind the leaf, then began adding various spices. I took notes as he added colorful candied fennel, rose petal preserves, shredded coconut, cardamom pods, and then a little bit more fennel for good measure. After folding the leaf and its aromatic mixture into a tidy little triangle, he wrapped each one in aluminum foil and directed me to refrigerate them as soon as I could. I thanked him and said goodbye, and headed home to follow his instructions.
A few weeks later, my next task required slightly more time exploring and certainly a lot more muscle. I was given a list of
tropical fruits and vegetables, and a rough idea of where to find them in Manhattan. My first stop was a Spanish market not far from Columbia’s campus, where I found and gathered an abundance of less commonly found produce such as chayote, taro root, cassava, plantains, and okra. The next day, I headed to Chinatown to collect the remaining items on my list. I started at the subway stop at Grand & Bowery in the Lower East Side and headed downtown along Bowery, exploring the side streets while I perused the various markets. I saw all kind of fragrant, beautiful fruits – vivid pink dragon fruits, bright green bitter melons, and all kinds of mangoes and papayas. The one thing that caught my eye – and nose – in particular, however, were the huge spiky durians that emitted a slight, but sickly sweet odor. Here I encountered the most biodiversity and acquired the most biomass, and after deeming my supply adequate I hobbled towards the subway with my completed loot of fruits and roots.
As it came time to prepare these many edible botanicals for the class, some of the things were familiar to me (okra slime, we meet again) – while others were new and I wasn’t really sure how to cook them. Nonetheless, with a quick Google search I was able to find seemingly reliable recipes for most of the items. The food that most pleasantly surprised was the cassava. I cooked it carefully – boiling it in water which I changed several times, since raw cassava can contain a fair amount of cyanide. Hoping that I had cooked it safely, I taste-tested a piece and found it surprisingly sweet with a great texture. By 4am the night before the class, I finished packing up the cooked tubers, plantains, lotus root, and okra, double checked my inventory, set my alarm and finally went to sleep. In the morning Kaggie and Molly, two particularly strong and benevolent graduate students from my cohort, helped me transport the many boxes and bags full of these fruits and vegetables to the classroom for the students to enjoy.
My task of exploring Manhattan in search of these plants was an awesome adventure. It has made me realize the many
opportunities that New York City has to offer for scientists –from almost anywhere in the city we are just a quick subway ride away from getting these fruits that came from all over the world. Also, using technology makes these things easily accessible. Yelp helped me find where to go to get these plants, and Google helped me find out how to prepare them as edible – and hopefully, palatable – food. Of course, the people I interacted with were also of invaluable assistance. Without the help from the fruit vendors, I wouldn’t have known how to select fruits that were adequately ripe. Without the help from my fellow grad students, I never would have been able to transport all of the boxes. And of course without the course itself, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity at all. By using the tools of technology in connection with the community of the city, it’s possible to find a little bit of nature even on an urban island. My experience fits well with the aforementioned theme: biodiversity is everywhere if you look for it in the right places, which makes this city a truly great place for science.