It was a rarity even a generation or two ago,and has all but vanished from markets today. Now Punjab is making a nostalgic effort to bring back the black carrot.
Those who knew of it will remember the winters when grandmothers would leave long juicy pieces of these carrots floating in a glass jar in the sunlight,and how she would serve kaanji,as the dark,tangy water was called in Punjab. It was a pricey delicacy. Black carrots were not a commodity one found in the market,and the few lucky homes that had them would have got them after placing a special order with their vegetable vendor. That would have meant the kilo or two the vendor managed came at three times the price of red carrots.
Long,tender and juicy,they are dark black or purple. They are never eaten cooked because they bleed a darkish fluid. They are used in salads,in making kaanji and even as a colouring agent by paani puri vendors. Such vendors use artificial colours today,and few in the country have ever heard of black carrots.
Behind the effort to bring them back is Tarsem Singh Dhillon,a professor of vegetable sciences at Punjab Agricultural University,who has developed a seed variety and hopes to reintroduce the black carrot among vegetable growers in Punjab and neighbouring states.
It was nostalgia that got him going,he concedes. I remembered how we used to get delicious kaanji from black carrots in our childhood and noted how these carrots have completely vanished from our diet. says Dhillon,46. I wanted to reintroduce them to Punjab.
He started work on the seed variety in 2005-06. The state horticulture department approved it in April this year,he says. The variety,PCB 5,also known as Punjabs black beauty,is now being grown by around 40 farmers who have been given the seeds on trial. Their produce is expected to hit the markets in the upcoming winter.
When university and horticulture department officers introduced the idea to farmers,they found even carrot growers had no idea about anything other than red and orange.
I was not aware about black carrots until I visited PAU last year, admits Jinder Singh,a veteran farmer who has grown vegetables for 50 years in Sandhuan village of Ropar. Last year I sowed black carrots and sold them at Rs 25 per kg in Chandigarh. This year we have sown them again.
Majinder Singh Dosanjh of Jagatpura village,Nawanshahr,is an exception. He did know of black carrots and even grew them,but it was for personal rather than commercial use since black carrots were not among vegetables approved by the horticulture department. This year we have grown more of them since the horticulture department has approved the variety.”
Our real work was convincing the farmers about such carrots and their benefits, says Dhillon. Black carrots have various medicinal properties.
The few farmers who have grown black carrots,like Jinder Singh,earned Rs 25 to Rs 30 a kilo while the price in wholesale markets was in the range Rs 45-60. Red carrots are sold at Rs 5 to 10 a kilo.
Once demand is created and supply in ensured in market,black carrot prices will come down. Common people can buy them at the same rate as they buy red carrots,but only if farmers start growing them, says L S Brar,horticulture officer.
The area covered under carrots itself tells the story. While red carrots are grown on some 7,000 to 8,000 hectares in Punjab,the black carrots don’t cover more than 20-50 hectares and there,too,the farmers mostly grow them for personal use or for the local market, Brar adds.
Vendors may get some black carrots from neighbouring states such as Delhi or Haryana where,too,it is grown in small pockets. There is no large-scale production anywhere. We have approved the universitys variety and hope it will get a good response and raise farmers interest so that we can produce in large quantities. But at present we have just started the trials.
Sanjeev Ahuja,a progressive farmer for 20 years at Khuban village,Abohar,is among those experimenting. He has grown black carrots over a small area. We will see the market response. If demand increases,we will grow them over a larger area, he says.
Harvesting black carrots take as long as harvesting red,70 to 110 days or an average 90 days.