Food Files: How fruit preservation in India married Mughal influence with local produce, customs to create new traditions
Far from being a homogeneous inherited lexicon, the methods with which fruit in India is preserved today is a textured reflection of centuries of invasions, colonisation and trade and maritime routes that have married the lay of the land and pre-existing dietary predilections with absorbed techniques.
This is the first in a three-part Indian food history series that delves into time-tested culinary techniques and single-ingredient origins and showcases how some of these practices have been reflected across states and communities.
Each installation of this series will focus on a specific flavour profile; part 1 is 'sweet'.
The Kodagu of Kaveri Ponappa’s youth is replete with images of native kaipuli oranges, with a natural bitterness that lends itself to an unusual charring technique; sweet, glossy kaake panne (black nightshade) berries that make for a heady wine with an alcohol content that is issued with fair warning; wild hog plum that is pickled in a brine; and the fruit that provokes perhaps the most personal sense of loss — the karmanji panne.
According to the author and independent writer, a lot of wild fruit such as the karmanji panne or bush plum, is no longer seen as a result of habitat loss. As an afterthought, she adds, “It’s sweet and delicious and was very popular — as a fruit and a jam when ripe, or in pickles and chutneys. It’s fallen off the map now and a couple of generations have no familiarity with it; it didn’t deserve to go that way.”
Ponappa talks of several varieties of “extremely edible and flavourful” citrus fruit that are endemic to the region. She illustrates by drawing attention to the aromatic oils that are released from the skin of the kaipuli when it is charred. The fruit is allowed to cool down after being blistered and the “crust” is done away with. Once deseeded, the membrane is removed and the pulp is cooked “with a lot of spices and jaggery”, into the dense kaipuli chutte pajji, which is a cross between a jam and chutney.
According to Ponappa, it is this strong tradition — demonstrated in preparations such as the pajji and countless squashes, preserves, jams and pickles — that has led to observations made about Kodava women and pickling as early as the 19th century. For her, the connect is “a logical offshoot of the landscape”. As bountiful as the land may have been in season, she points to the “long monsoon months where you had to depend on preserved fruit and vegetables to liven up your diet”.
To be privy to Ponappa’s wistful ruminations on the fruit-based preparations and natural bounty of Kodagu (commonly referred to by its former name of Coorg) in the Western Ghats of southwestern Karnataka is to be transported to a land that assumes the near mythical proportions of Mughal emperor Zahiru’d-din Muhamad Babur’s accounts of Fergana in his 16th century memoir The Babur Nama.
In a report on melons in Afghanistan, Fabrizio Foschini states that one would be forgiven for likening early sections of The Babur Nama to “a consumer guide to the fruit markets of Central Asia”, particularly in passages where Babur pines for his favourite fruit in the Gangetic plains that are devoid of melons. The emperor's disdain for the fruit of his assumed homeland of India, where he had to re-establish himself, was an ill-concealed secret and he was reduced to tears, and “affected with a strong feeling of loneliness, and a sense of my exile from my native country” on being presented with a lone musk melon.
Fruit, or the lack of varieties they were accustomed to, was for the nomadic Mughal conquerors a bittersweet reminder of a lingering sense of displacement and all they had left behind in Central Asia. Interestingly, the mango was the lone contender deemed worthy of their favour. In The Babur Nama, the emperor went so far as to say, “When the mango is good, it is really good…, few are first-rate...They are usually plucked unripe and ripened in the house. Unripe, they make excellent condiments (qatiq), are good also to be preserved in syrup.”
In the 16th century Ain-i-Akbari where court historian Abul Fazl chronicles the administration of the Mughal empire under Emperor Akbar, he states that the mango is, “unrivalled in colour, smell and taste” and that a month after the leaves have made their appearance, the fruit is sour and used for pickles and preserves. Akbar’s otherwise abstemious ways gave in to the indulgence of mango slices that had been preserved in honey, a technique that draws an uncanny parallel with the Coorg practice of preserving ripe but firm segments of jackfruit in honey. The resultant mixture, says Ponappa, “kept and remained stable for a very long time”. She enlists about four jackfruit cultivars endemic to the area.
Food writer Vikram Doctor reminds us of how inextricably tied fruit preservation in India is to the introduction of sugar. He says, “With preserves, a lot of people forget about the importance of sugar — specifically white sugar, which was introduced in India not much earlier than the 17th century.” Jaggery and sugarcane were available in the country since ancient times and although the former had a pronounced profile, which wasn’t favourable to preserves, a little bit could be used in the Indian murabbas. “A murabba,” he adds, “is pretty much a jam and it’s closer to pickling — which is the other thing. Our natural tendency is to make everything into a pickle. If you look at an Usha’s Pickle Digest, you’ll see hundreds of fruits being pickled.”
The fine art of murabba-making is carried forward even today and Hyderabad-based Dilnaz Baig who hosts a home dining experience outlines the process of making kairi (raw mango) murabba. “We get unseasonal summer showers and when that happens, these big mangoes fall off. We soak them overnight in sweet well water. They are then peeled and soaked again in a bucket with about two teaspoons of the chuna lime mixture that we use for paan. The following day we slice them and cook them down till they are tender, at which point sugar is added and allowed to attain a one-thread, syrupy consistency.” The transparent preserve can be made out of any seasonal fruit such as pineapple, guavas and peaches, and can “last for two to three years, if made well,” says Baig.
The preservation of fruit in the Mughal times was key to the rulers being able to enjoy the seasonal Indian fruits they appreciated, year round, and they devised ingenious ways in which they could enjoy them off season too. Ice, for example, was used to preserve watermelon. A “farman” laid out by the Shah of Iran to the Governor, in anticipation of Humayun’s arrival, laid down instructions for the emperor and his subjects to have rose sherbet made with lemon syrup and chilled with ice, followed by a medley of marmalades featuring Mashhad apples, watermelon and plums that were to be served with white-flour breads.
The concept of “sharbats’, according to hotelier Ajwad Raza, still prevails in Rajasthan where heritage shops offer patrons temporary respite from the unforgiving heat with an array of options featuring hyper local fruit such as the green khus sharbat derived from the roots of khus or vetiver grass; the striking purple-hued falsa sharbat made from the sweet-sour falsa berry; and the bael patta sharbat from the bael or wood apple — a fruit revered by Hindus and used as an offering to Lord Shiva. With a host of medicinal values ranging from acting as a body coolant to curing diarrhoea and dysentery and aiding digestion, the sharbat is rich in calcium, vitamins, iron and fibre. The bael is cracked open and the pulp scraped out and strained into a pan with cold milk or water.
It is concoctions such as the gulab sharbat, featuring local roses from the Pushkar region, and the decadent milk-based thandai sharbat, rich in dried fruit such as almonds, pistachios and melon seeds and flecked with peppercorns, fennel seeds and cardamom, that Raza speaks of, which are reminiscent of the Persian affinity for saffron and dry fruit introduced to the Mughal repertoire through Emperor Humayun’s Iranian wife.
The Mughals, however, are not to be singularly credited for sowing the seeds of fruit preservation and confections in India. Far from being a homogeneous inherited lexicon, the methods with which fruit in India is preserved today is a textured reflection of centuries of invasions, colonisation and trade and maritime routes that have married the lay of the land and pre-existing dietary predilections with absorbed techniques. Various communities across the country have devised their own distinct methods to preserve endemic fruit in keeping with the dictates of nature, terrain and sociocultural differences.
Jehan Nizar is an independent features writer and food blogger based in Chennai, India. Her work most often explores food as a point of convergence for history and anthropology and has appeared in national and international publications such as The Wire, The Wire Science, Firstpost, Verve Magazine, Whetstone Magazine, PEN America, The Spruce Eats and Gulf News. She formerly wrote a weekly food column for Asiaville.
*Image for one-time use only and copyright of Kaveri Ponnapa