A fruitful search
I often hear people complaining about the modern tendency to buy avocados and other expensive fruit. “Why must you spend so much money on foreign fruit?” they say. “What’s wrong with good Indian fruit? Why go for imported fruit?”
The problem with these sentiments – as laudable as they are on the grounds of thrift – is that they refer to something that doesn’t really exist. What are Indian fruit, anyway? The truth is that many of the fruit we regard as our own were never ours to begin with. They were all imports.
Indian fruit have long got a bum rap. When the Mughals got here, they were appalled by the limited number of fruit available in the market. Worse still, many of the ones they had some familiarity with were – or so they claimed – remarkably feeble in their Indian avatars.
Babur and Humayun both often wrote about missing the sweet melons of Samarkand and it is the Mughals we must thank for importing fruit seeds from Central Asia and expanding the range of local fruit available. But the Portuguese and the British were even more influential than the Mughals. The sad – and shocking – reality is that were it not for colonial conquerors, India would be one of the worst places in the world to eat fruit. Of course, we do not realise this. Each region of India has one or two fruit that it regards as its very own. In fact, rarely is this true. In nearly every case, the fruit was originally not native to India, let alone to that region.
Let’s start with the one fruit we regard as indispensable to many kinds of cuisine, the imli or tamarind. We think of the tamarind as being not just Indian but uniquely Asian. Tamarind is an integral constituent of many South East Asian cuisines, among them Thai and Malay.
Well, chew on this: the tamarind is not of Indian, or even Asian origin. It originated in Africa and was brought to Asia by traders. Records show that the tamarind was used all over North Africa long before the birth of Christ. It was even known to the ancient Egyptians. It is still used in many parts of Africa, including Malawi.
But the name tamarind – by which no Indian knows the plant – is Arabic and is, bizarrely enough, of Indian origin. An Arab gave it that name after he saw the plant in India. The ‘tamar’ in the name is Arabic, meaning a dry date fruit. And the ‘ind’ comes from Hind. The Arabs called it the tamar of Hind!
Let’s take the custard apple. Gujaratis regard the fruit as their own personal property. Sitaphal (which is what we call custard apple) ice-cream is a great Gujarati dish. But the custard apple is as Gujarati as Viv Richards. It is a West Indian fruit that only got to Africa in the 17th century. It made its way to India sometime after that – at which stage, presumably, it was adopted by Gujaratis.
Or take Goans and the cashewnut. If you listen to Goans talk about the quality of their kajus or praise their feni, you would think that they had known the cashew for millennia. But, as you may have guessed, the cashewnut is of Brazilian origin and it was brought to Goa by the Portuguese. (Interestingly, the Goans, like the Brazilians, prize the nut while in the rest of South America, it is the outer cashew-apple that is the delicacy.)
Tropical America (the South and Central part of the Americas, that is) provided many of the fruit that we regard as peculiarly Indian. The guava also comes from Brazil and was brought to Asia by the Portuguese. In Malaysia, it is called jambu portugis. The papaya also came to India with the Portuguese who probably found the first papaya plants somewhere in the Americas – Mexico is one possibility.
So it is with the pineapple. Christopher Columbus found the plant in the Americas, brought it back to Europe where it was known as “the noblest of all the fruits of India.” (The silly twits thought that Columbus had discovered a new sea route to India not realising that he’d ended up in America.) The Spaniards and the Portuguese stuck for a while with Columbus’s name ‘the pine of the Indies’ before settling on ‘apple’ rather than ‘Indies.’ In many parts of India (and the rest of Asia) we still use names derived from the original Brazilian (“anana”) and current European names are variations of the Brazilian term.