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A fruitful search

Though fruits such as the papaya, pineapple and lychee may have come to us from other countries, we’ve always had our own too – mangoes, bananas, coconuts. Vir Sanghvi tells more.

india Updated: Jan 23, 2010 17:20 IST
Vir Sanghvi Vir Sanghvi


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


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


or praise their


, 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.

Even those of us who are not entirely surprised to learn that the cashew and the pineapple came from the Americas may be startled to discover that even the kaddu or the pumpkin has a Central American origin. The plant was discovered by Spanish conquistadores in Mexico and taken back to Europe along with other members of the same family (squash, marrow, etc.). It has never really caught on in Europe but it is a favourite in North America (where they make pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dinner) and in much of Asia.

Of course, not every fruit came from the Americas (though sometimes it seems that way). Many came from Africa and West Asia and reached India centuries ago. Take the pomegranate which was well known in Europe centuries ago (Romeo’s nightingale serenaded Juliet in Verona under a pomegranate tree). We know that the pomegranate was eaten by the ancient Egyptians and the Romans. Who brought it to India? There are many theories but we have eaten it for over a thousand years – and have now forgotten that it was ever an import.

Say this for Indians though: once we are shown a good fruit, we take it to our hearts. Many of us think of the lychee as being a Chinese fruit – which of course it is – because of the enthusiasm with which Chinese restaurateurs put it on their menus. Fair enough. The lychee left China relatively late and only reached India in the 18th century. Nor did the lychee appear in its canned form on world markets till 1945. But, guess what? India is now the world’s largest producer of canned lychees.

All this many leave you wondering: are there no Indian fruit at all? Is everything of foreign origin?Actually yes, there are Indian fruit. The most famous of these is the mango. It is a purely Indian plant even though it is now cultivated in many other parts of the world. There were mangoes in India over 4,000 years ago and it crops up in ancient Sanskrit texts. Even the Mughals had to drop their sniffiness after tasting the mango. The Emperor Akbar planted 1,00,000 mango trees all over India – one reason perhaps why the mango’s popularity extends to every part of the country.

There are other Indian fruit too. The king of the bunch is probably the banana. Many countries lay claim to the banana – the name itself comes from the local name of an African plant. And in South East Asia they argue that the plant is native to Malaysia. But the oldest reference to the banana, going back 2,500 years, mentions India. Alexander the Great’s army first encountered bananas in India in 326 BC and by then, Alexander’s people were familiar with Iran and North Africa where they had seen no bananas at all.

Unlike many other fruit which were discovered in America, then taken to Europe and eventually made their way to Africa and India, the banana followed the opposite route. It was found in India, went to Africa and the Middle East, from there to Europe and then to North America. It was the demand for bananas in North America that led to the growth of banana plantations in Brazil.

Also entirely Indian in origin is the coconut. You find palm trees all over tropical coasts but the earliest records of the coconut fruit exist in Indian literature. It was Indians who learnt how to use the byproducts of the coconut – coir, oil, milk and water. And the coconut seems to have been a part of Hindu rituals almost from the time such rituals began.

Speaking for myself, I am not a great fruit eater and so unlike the Mughals or other imperialists, I have no problem with Indian fruit. I am happy to accept that we only discovered the guava, the papaya, the pumpkin or the pomegranate when foreigners brought them to our shores.

But give me a coconut or a banana and I will be more than happy to let you keep your cashews and your guavas. Indian fruit may not have been the most exotic. But like India itself they are solid, timeless and always reliable.