Mangoes, peaches, watermelons make the Indian summer bearable: A look at how they came to be so popular

Activities of kings, nobles, farmers, traders and scientists have contributed to the oeuvre of Indian summer fruits. The Grand Trunk Road once was lined with mulberry trees by the Mughal rulers and their feudatories.

Written by Kaushik Dasgupta | Updated: June 11, 2017 10:13 am
Watermelon Oranges are not the only fruit: The bael remains a favourite in India; Mughal emperor Babur had engaged a watermelon grower from the Balkh area and planted vines at Agra himself. Today, melons are ubiquitous during Indian summers. (Source: Sumit Malhotra)

In 1909, the American botanist David Fairchild received a box of seeds and a fruit from one Mr Mustoe of the Archaeological Park of Lahore. The parcel was accompanied by a letter that described the properties of the fruit in question. “The bael tree is common in the greater part of India and its wood is one of the few woods prescribed in the Hindu scriptures for sacrificial fires”. The letter added that the bael fruit is “greatly valued for eating by the natives but can scarcely be palatable to the white man except for its medicinal properties”.

The letter went on to describe the medicinal properties of the bael in great detail. “The unripe fruit is boiled or roasted, the pulp is a laxative and when mixed with milk or water, or both, makes a healthy coolant and agreeable sherbet. To make this, the natives take the pulp out of the fruit, then pass it through a strainer and add it to a glass of milk or water”.

The properties of the bael evoked much interest among colonial horticulturists in India. In the Dictionary of Economic Products of India (1890), the botanist George Watt writes that “no drug has been better appreciated by the inhabitants of India than bael”. “The unripe fruit is cut up and sun dried and, in this form, is sold in the bazaars in whole or broken slices”. “The ripe fruit is sweet, aromatic and cooling”.

The colonists were, however, quick to note that the taste for bael was an acquired one. In the Manual of Gardening in India (1863), Thomas Augustus Firminger writes that “the interior of the bael contains a soft yellow substance of peas pudding-like consistency, intermingled with a limpid kind of slime, a very fragrant scent and a flavour very agreeable to those accustomed to it. The high reputation it bears for its medicinal properties make many partake of it and those who do so become remarkably fond of it.”

The interests of the colonial botanists and horticulturists in the bael was, however, rarely matched by most other Westerners. Watt quotes one Surgeon Major HJ Hazlitt of the Nilgiri Hills as decrying the fruit as “unpleasant”. Fairchild’s efforts to introduce the bael to America failed. The bael, by most accounts, remained a uniquely Indian summer fruit till health food aficionados globally became alive to its virtues.

In Odisha, a drink of the bael panna heralds the new year. Mashed bananas, grated coconuts, jaggery, mixed with the bael juice, garnished with cardamom, clove, nutmeg and a tiny amount of camphor is first offered to the gods and goddesses before being consumed by pitcherfuls. The drink gives the Odia new year one of its names: Pana Sankranti.

Lychee Ripe and luscious: Lychees arrived via China. (Source: Jaipal Singh)

Summer is the time for fruits in the country. The messy bael, succulent mangoes, fleshy peaches, luscious plums, dripping watermelons and several other fruits make the difficult Indian summer bearable. The bael, for example, finds a mention in the Ayurveda as a wonder product of sorts. Its juice rejuvenates in the scorching weather. The leaves, bark and seeds of the bael tree are laden with medicinal properties. Its stickiness and bitter aftertaste means the fruit works brilliantly as a marmalade. Fairchild and Watt’s early endeavours to introduce the product to the Western taste are bearing fruit more than a century later, with niche heath food outfits extolling the virtues of the bael. Its anti-fungal qualities ensure that bael, and bael products, last longer on the shelves.

Activities of kings, nobles, farmers, traders and scientists have contributed to the oeuvre of Indian summer fruits. The Grand Trunk Road once was lined with mulberry trees by the Mughal rulers and their feudatories. For weary travellers, the juicy elongated fruit would be a source of instant energy and nutrition. In kitchens in several parts of the country, women would soak the fruit and boil the pulp, making a sherbet out of it. But mulberry is fast disappearing from common people’s plates in India.

Another summer fruit undergoing a change of sorts is the jamun. The14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta describes the fruit as “abundant” around Delhi. The British chose the jamun trees as a part of the foliage for Lutyens’ Delhi. Both sides of the capital’s Rajpath became home to canopies of trees of the purple leathery fruit. But jamun-sellers in the capital are becoming increasingly scarce and pushcarts selling the fruit with the grape-like texture and a sharp tang are rarer fixtures in Indian bazaars. The jamun, though, is in vogue in the health food market. Low on calories, they are a rich source of proteins, vitamins, antioxidants, flavonoid manganese, potassium, phosphorous and calcium.

The jackfruit is another nutrient-rich summer food. The food historian KT Achaya believes that its early name, “phanasa” derives from the Munda language. Said to be the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, jackfruit is also amongst the oldest known food items in the country, with archaeological evidence testifying to its cultivation around 4,000 BC. It’s almost amongst the most versatile. While the ripe fruit is a gooey delicacy, the raw fruit is elemental to several dishes. Its seeds are nutrient rich as well. India grows more than 14 lakh tonnes of jackfruit every year. But tragically, there are no takers for nearly 70 per cent of this big and bumpy fruit.

Like the jackfruit, jamun and bael are indigenous to the country. The purple mulberry came to India from Iran; the white variety of the fruit came to the country from China. The 16th century Bengali work Chandimangala notes that Lord Shiva, who was of choleric dispensation, was given sour mangoes for dessert. Achaya writes that summer fruits that are either indigenous to India or have been in the country since recorded history include mango and jamun, while forms of apple, peach, pear and plums were later arrivals. “A wave of immigrant fruits came in after AD 1500 from South and Central America like the papaya, sapota, while from China came the lychee,” he writes in The Illustrated Foods of India (2009). Lychee came to India in the 17th century through Burma. Today, the country is the second largest producer of the fruit.

Mango Mangoes have been native to India. (Source: Ganesh Shirsekar)

Many of the fruits introduced to the country by the Portuguese and Chinese “were not of high quality but were improved by grafting in the Mughal times,” notes Achaya. The Mughal period can justifiably be called one of the high points in the history of summer fruits in the country. The first Mughal emperor Babur’s lament about the lack of melons and ice in India was the harbinger of a fruit revolution that continues to enrich the country’s gastronomy. The Mughals were known to preserve watermelon in ice exported from Kashmir. Historian Irfan Habib notes that Babur engaged a watermelon grower from the Balkh area and himself planted vines at Agra. “Under Akbar, experts were brought to cultivate grapes and melons,” writes Habib, noting that the endeavour was deemed a success in imperial chronicles.

According to food historian Lizzie Collingham, the Mughal obsession with fruits was much more than pure gluttony: “The fruits invoked the Mughals’ lost homelands in Central Asia. Their discussions were a coded expression of their homesickness. The delicate flavour of a Persian melon, the sweetness of a Samarkand apple symbolised the sophisticated culture which was their birthright and which they could no longer enjoy in its rightful setting. The introduction of these fruits into India were exquisite reminders of the Central Asian civilisation”.

By the time of Babur’s grandson, Akbar, however, a great deal had changed in the ways of the formerly nomadic conquerors from Central Asia. Akbar set up an imperial fruitery, which, writes Collingham, was staffed with horticulturists from Persia and Central Asia. “Jahangir wrote at tedious length on the merits of apples from Samarkand and Kabul, exactly how many cherries it was possible to eat at one setting, and the astonishment of the Sheikhs of Ahmedabad at the superiority of the Persian melons over those grown in their native Gujarat”. But both Akbar and Jahangir also took to mangoes grown in the country with gusto. Akbar set up an orchard that had one lakh mango trees in Darbhanga in modern day Bihar. In the Ain-i-Akbari, the emperor’s minister and chronicler,

Abul Fazl, describes the mango “as unrivalled in colour, smell, and taste; and some of the gourmands of Turan and Iran place it above muskmelons and grapes. The flower opens in spring, resembles that of the vine, has a good smell and looks very curious.” “Mangoes are to be found everywhere in India, especially in Bengal, Gujarat, Malwah, Khandesh, and the Deccan. They are rarer in Punjab, where their cultivation has, however, increased since his Majesty made Lahore his capital. A young tree will bear fruit after four years. They put also milk and treacle round about the trees, which makes the fruits sweeter,” Abul Fazl says.

By Akbar’s time, the mango had become the flavour of the court. The emperor, otherwise a frugal eater, took great delight in preserving mango slices in honey to eat them during the off season. Jahangir, the fourth Mughal emperor, enjoyed melons and watermelons, but would also admit in his memoir, Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, “notwithstanding the sweetness of the Kabul fruits, not one of them has, to my taste, the flavour of the mango.”

Jahangir’s memoirs are replete with observations of mangoes from different parts of the country. “Although the mangoes from Malwa are well-known and celebrated for their sweetness, freedom from stringiness, size — so much so that I ordered them to be weighed in my presence — yet in sweetness of water and delicious flavour, and digestibility, the mangoes in the province of Agra are superior to all the mangoes in the country,” he notes.

The Mughal period can justifiably be called one of the high points in the history of summer fruits in the country. (Source: File photo)

Collingham writes that fruit acquired a political language in the Mughal court and foreigners were astonished to discover the proportion of their income that Mughal noblemen spent on fruit. The fallouts were sometimes tricky. The East India Company representative to the Mughal court, Thomas Roe, once failed to recognise the compliment when a prominent noble, Asaf Khan, sent him a basket of 20 musk melons. “Instead,” writes Collingham, “he complained that Indians suppose our felicity lies in the palate”.

Fruit was one of the best royal gifts. Collingham writes that on one occasion, when Shah Jahan was angry with his son, Aurangzeb, “he accused him of eating the best fruit of his father’s favourite tree in the Deccan, instead of sending the fruit to him”.

Mughal patronage to the mango played an important part in improving the varieties of the fruit. Writes Achaya, “Noblemen could have all their revenues remitted by raising orchards”. Muqarrab Khan, one of Jahangir’s favourite nobles, had a mango orchard in Kirana, in present-day Muzaffarnagar district of UP, which had varieties of the fruit native to Gujarat, Deccan and other parts of the country. According to Habib, such orchards became sites of horticultural experiments. Early in Jahangir’s reign, Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khana cultivated melons for the first time in the Deccan with seeds from “reputed gardeners of Iran and Khurasan”. Habib writes that after “applying himself to the task for two years he obtained the most tasteful fruit”.

The historian notes that the royal and “aristocratic interest in fruit gardens led to the propagation of grafting which had important consequences for horticulture in general”. Akbar’s governor in Kashmir, Muhammad Quli Afshar, introduced grafts of sweet cherry in Kashmir from Afghanistan. The chronicles of Shah Jahan’s reign, the Padshahnama, describe the Kashmir cherries as superior to that of those in Kabul. The produce of these gardens were essentially meant for consumption by the households and retinues of the owners. But there is also indication that these orchards fostered rudimentary commerce. Habib writes of jagirdars in Gujarat selling mangoes of their gardens to “merchants, artisans and common people” during Aurangzeb’s reign — a practice that attracted the wrath of the emperor.

Areas outside royal preserves, though, remained rich sites of horticulture. The lesser aristocracy imbibed the ways of their more affluent counterparts. The Dussehri, Chausa and Rataul varieties of mangoes derive their names from villages near Lucknow. The Banganapalli mango derives its name from Banganpalle in Andhra Pradesh’s Kurnool district. Other interesting initiatives have left their mark on the mango. Achaya, for example, notes that the Langda variety of mango derives its name from a lame mendicant who found the green and lusciously tangy variety growing in his backyard in Varanasi. He also writes of wild ripe mangoes being cooked in curd to make a sweet-sour relish mange-pajji in the Coorg area.

The melons, too, became less of an elite preserve by the 18th century. In Habib Tanvir’s play on the 18th century poet, Nazeer Akbarabadi, the poet receives requests from a watermelon seller and a kakdi or cucumber seller to write verses on their wares.

In several parts of the country, it’s still not uncommon for sellers of jamuns, mangoes, watermelons to break into a song while conducting their business. However, such characters are becoming increasingly scarce. It’s not unimaginable that on supermarket shelves, the kakdi will be called by its English name: the skinny cucumber.

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