Ark of taste
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Lapunei is a native leafy green plant that grows both wild and domesticated in various areas of northeast India. In English, it is better known as a type of basil or tulsi. There are four area-specific varieties, all belonging to the Ocimum genus. Lapunei has been long appreciated in India for its qualities as an aromatic herb when consumed both fresh and in tea preparations. Its smooth leaves are small but somewhat long, differing in both size and shape from the basil used in European cooking. Historically, wild edibles like lapunei have always contributed to the wholesome diet of the tribal peoples in northeast India. For the Jaintia, Meitei, Khasi and many other communities, it is directly connected to their people’s identity and forest-dependant lifestyle. The presence of lapunei in many kitchen gardens and its many culinary uses is another indicator of agrobiodiversity and knowledge preservation over hundreds of years. Depending on the variety, lapunei has either a strong or subtle lemon aroma. Flowers, too, have a culinary value and can be used for decoration as well as subtle flavoring or color in dishes. Apart from being used as an herb in local foods such as salads, chutneys, boiled meat and vegetable dishes, lapunei is also used as a tea and as a traditional herbal medicine that prevents fungal or microbial infections and helps in curing stomach problems. Further traditional knowledge describes a sedative effect. The uses vary from village to village, depending on what knowledge has been passed on and the differences between the varieties. Besides being found in the wild, lapunei is mainly grown in kitchen gardens of rural homes in various states of India (such as Manipur, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland). The cultivation of lapunei can also be practiced in multi-cropping systems, promoting crop diversity. It is harvested from the month of May until late September. Lapunei leaves are simply plucked from the stems and then used whole or cut into smaller parts before being added to dishes. When used as tea, about one liter of hot water is poured over a handful of leaves, and the infusion is left for less than 10 minutes. After the season, when lapunei has reached its maximum height and starts to flower, it can be dried as an entire plant and kept for the winter season, and the seeds preserved for the next year. As with many other wild edibles, the major threat to lapunei is the diminishing area of forest habitat. Monocultured crops and market dependant foods have substituted wholesome ingredients such as lapunei with artificial and convenience foods. Mass media and advertisement for multinational brands have also led to the depreciation of locally available food items such as lapunei that are today often regarded as ‘poor foods’. Lapunei has the potential to be marketed as a refreshing herbal tea infusion, if given proper drying, packaging and processing facilities.

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Spices, wild herbs and condiments

Nominated by:Annelie Bernhart - NESFAS