A highly nutritious vegetable that grows in Kashmir and has huge demand in the West. Owing to government apathy, asparagus is on the verge of extinction in the valley. Haroon Mirani reports.
When former agriculture minister Abdul Aziz Zargar was asked about the status of asparagus in Kashmir and the government policy regarding it, during a live phone-in TV programme, he did not know what it was. “Is it a vegetable or fruit!” the minister answered with surprise.
To save the ignorant minister from further embarrassment, the caller, Abdul Wahid Harco, diverted the question to mushrooms.
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) known as Paarglass in Kahmiri, is one of the most sought after vegetables in Europe, USA and other world markets. It is always in high demand and fetches good prices.
Zargar is not the only person in the government who did not know what asparagus was. Former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, once expressed surprise on seeing this vegetable growing in Kashmir.
Jammu and Kashmir, to be precise Kashmir valley, is the only place in India, where Asparagus grows.
“Nobody knows how asparagus cultivation started in Kashmir, but most of people believe that Britons introduced it,” says Wahid Harco, owner of Suntop Food Processing – the largest Asparagus marketing plant in the state.
Asparagus is a small slender vegetable, derived from stem of Asparagus plant. Only the young shoots of asparagus are eaten.
Asparagus is rich in nutrients and is considered a healthy food. It is a good source of folic acid, potassium, dietary fibre and rutin besides having very low Sodium. Asparagus derives its name from asparagine, an amino acid which is abundant in it.
Up to sixties asparagus was grown widely in Kashmir at Pulwama, Budgam, Rajbagh, Tangmarg and Gulmarg. As of now the area of Asparagus cultivation is restricted to Tangmarg and Gulmarg.
According to a publication of Regional Research Laboratory, 70 tonnes of asparagus was produced in Kashmir in 1989, and its area of cultivation was spread over 30 hectares.
“Farming sector in Kashmir is diminishing fast in general and same is the case with asparagus,” says Wahid. “With every passing year asparagus production is declining.”
The start of railways in Kashmir has also eaten into the land which used to grow asparagus. “In Budgam and Pulwama, most of the asparagus growing land has been turned into railway tracks. Besides rampant commercialisation of (constructions on) agriculture land has added to its woes,” says Wahid.
Suntop Industries produced 1000 cases of tinned asparagus in sixties, which has now dwindled to 50 cases. Wahid says the decrease was a result of dwindling farm supply. One case contains 48 tins of 220 gms each.
Ironically the decline in production of asparagus has come at a time when its demand has grown exponentially. Suntop and couple of other small food processing industries dealing with asparagus fail to suffice the demand in India.
In high end hotels in India frequented by foreigners asparagus is in high demand. Wealthy Indians who travel to the West have started consuming asparagus.
In Kashmir asparagus is used by Hotel Grand Lalit Palace and other hotels in Gulmarg, particularly during the winters.
Throughout the world asparagus is eaten both in raw form as well as cooked. The shoots are prepared and served in a number of ways. Asparagus is served stir-fried with chicken, shrimp, or beef, and also wrapped in bacon. Asparagus may also be quickly grilled over charcoal or hardwood embers. Its soup is also in high demand.
Asparagus can also be pickled and stored for several years. It is often boiled or steamed, and served with hollandaise sauce, melted butter or olive oil, Parmesan cheese or mayonnaise. It may even be used in a dessert. Asparagus is also used in Pizzas.
The first crop of season is regarded as best asparagus and is often simply steamed and served along with melted butter.
In other parts of the world, asparagus grows mostly in maritime habitats as it thrives in soils that are too saline for other crops. It is one of the reasons that a little salt was traditionally used to suppress weeds in beds intended for asparagus cultivation.
Asparagus is of three types white, green and purple asparagus. In Kashmir only two types of Asparagus, white and green, are grown. White Asparagus, also known as White Gold, comprises of majority of the crop in Kashmir.
Asparagus grows from underground tubers and its shoots are cut when they reach six inches in height.
Asparagus is a useful companion plant for tomatoes as it repels certain type of beetles and some harmful root nematodes that affect tomato plants.
Asparagus yield can reach to as high as 30 tonnes per hectare under suitable conditions.
Obsessed with horticulture particularly apple, the government has long ignored asparagus – a high yield cash crop. The asparagus growers rue that the government never came out with a plan, policy or package to revive asparagus cultivation. “It is high time that government intervenes in this sector and save it from extinction,” says Wahid.
At present there is no knowledge about the extent of its cultivation in Kashmir.
Farooq Ahmad, Seed Production Officer in agriculture department says, “There is no extensive cultivation of asparagus in Kashmir and most often it is cultivated in kitchen gardens and left over patches.”
Although Government of India has tried, unsuccessfully, a number of times to grow asparagus in Himachal Pradesh and other states, but with regards to Kashmir even research is missing.
The people associated with asparagus say that government should organize Asparagus Festivals on the pattern of Tulip or Saffron festival during its harvesting season which starts in March. World over such festivals are held annually to promote asparagus.
China is the largest producer of Asparagus in the world producing 350000 metric tonnes. Peru follows with 310000 tonnes and it comprises Peru’s second largest agricultural export valued at USD 452 million. The USA is at third position with around 90200 ton production.