Jamun

I managed to taste some jamun (Syzygium cumini) at the tail end of the season. This is a fruit which is deeply embedded in my childhood memories. I literally measured my growth by a jamun tree which stood in the garden in front of the house I grew up in. My earliest memories of the fruit are of picking fallen jamun and eating them until my mouth and tongue were stained deep purple. Every summer, over years, my cousins and I tried to climb the tree. Eventually I was able to shin up that straight scaly trunk until the first branch. I was never as good at it as a friend who would go straight up to the fruiting branches and drop fruits down on the rest of us after eating his fill. I wasn’t surprised to find that this tree is native to the Indian subcontinent. Unlike the mango, another fruit of the summer, there is no mystique to this fruit; it is just an old friend, a favourite which you love to come back to. This year too, The Family and I sat down to savour the sweet acidic taste of the fruit, and shared childhood memories of having it with rock salt.

That’s why I was not surprised to find that there is huge genetic variation in the tree across India; no one has tried to cultivate particular strains. Since the taste of the fruit is preserved by the seed, vegetative propagation of jamun has not been widely used. Propagation by seed must have caused some selective distinctions between different regional varieties (the ones we ate this year did not colour our tongues much) while retaining genetic diversity. Two related facts amazed me. First, that although jamun has been carried across the world recently, there are many regions where the fruit is grown but not eaten (imagine that!). Second, that the genus Syzygium is found in a wide arc across the world, from Africa and Madagascar, through Asia, all the way to Australia and several Pacific islands. The geographic spread and genetic clocks indicate that the genus may have evolved after the late Jurassic, when the supercontinent of Gondwanaland was breaking up to create the modern oceans. It contains more than 1500 species, many of which have edible fruits, and (this blew me right out of the water) cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) belong to the same genus.

Vegetable Rescue

We are now into the second half of the second month of the lock-down. Our group of buildings is an enclave of safety in the middle of a hot zone. The supply chain has truly broken down, so finding fresh vegetables is a bit chancy. The Family rescued some sun dried bhindi (okra, lady finger, or gumbo, another of the many pieces of technology we have inherited from prehistoric human) from a corner of the room we have turned into a pantry and larder. When I began to chop it I realized that the gummy resin had got stickier as it dried. It had to be cooked dry. I threw some powdered dhania and turmeric with entire cloves and black pepper into a pan, and fried the bhindi till the gum had dried up. Then I scooped a lot of yogurt into it, covered it, and let it simmer.

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Although the bhindi had released an aroma while it cooked, I realized that it wouldn’t have much of flavour when it finished cooking. So we decided to make an aromatic pulao to go with it. The basmati took four rinses to clear, and I soaked it and set it aside. I took a handful of raisins and peanuts and soaked them in water. It is easy to remove the skin off the peanuts when it is soaked. Next I scooped a little star aniseed, cinnamon, mace, and cloves into the mortar and ground it coarse. When I was ready, with the peanut skinned, the raisins soft, the rice drained, it was time to heat a little oil in the pan. The masala is fried until it begins to release an aroma, then a finely chopped onion is dropped into the oil with the raisins and peanuts and fried to a golden colour. I fried the rice for a short while to make sure that the grains would not stick together, and then added to water to let it cook.

The Family had a large pot of chana masala ready, and we had our little epidemic Saturday lunch. In the first six weeks of the lockdown we had prepared ourselves for such food with a fat, fiber, and protein rich diet. Now there will be weeks of carbohydrate-rich food to eat before we are allowed to move about more freely.