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Gourmet Secrets: Cutting a caper

The popular sour Mediterranean condiment is finally being grown and sold in India

brunch Updated: Apr 15, 2018 00:54 IST
Karen Anand
Karen Anand
Hindustan Times
caper,Mediterranean cuisine,Old Testament
The caper bush is a very hardy plant that thrives in arid landscapes

The caper is an ancient condiment used in Mediterranean cuisine which was mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible and the Torah. There are some bushes still growing on the famous Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Like most ingredients associated with European food, such as olives or wine grapes, we didn’t pay much attention to whether they grow in India or not. One day, someone equipped with sound research, passion and drive decided to plant olive bushes and grape vines, only to discover, after some hits and misses, that they actually grew and in some cases, even flourished.

Bring on the tang

Capers, tiny buds in brine or vinegar, were something I used to buy in sleek little bottles abroad or in shops selling foreign items in India. They are used most often with seafood, in particular salmon, to add a sour note and some texture so you don’t really need a huge quantity.

The caper is the flower bud of the caper bush. These buds are quite small and the biggest buds look a lot like green hara chana in shape, but are a little smaller and softer. The caper bush is a very hardy plant that thrives in arid landscapes. It grows in the most adverse conditions: poor, nutrition deficient soil, high temperatures, low water. Caper buds have to be hand-picked before they bloom into a flower. If they do flower and bear fruits, the berries that form are called Caperberries. Neither is eaten raw, but always cured in salt or brine solutions.

In India, a variety of wild capers referred to as kabra grows in the desert region. I recently came across a range of capers (graded in sizes – how cool is that?), packed in salt and brine, and also caperberries which I love. They are simply outstanding with cold cuts and ham, especially a dried cured ham like the Spanish jamon Iberico, which is slightly chewy, intensely flavoured, cured and aged.

All these caper products are grown and marketed under the brand Ishka. Imported capers are relatively easy to find, but what is special about these is that the entire range is grown, harvested, cured and bottled right on the farm in Niravi Pudhupatti village, Tuticorin district, Tamil Nadu. It is the first and only farm in India growing capers and has incorporated the GAP and GMP in its functioning. Not only is it an organic certified farm, but it also provides 100 per cent traceability of all produce.

Capers are used most often with seafood, in particular salmon, to add a sour note and some texture so you don’t really need a huge quantity

Farming flavour

The dynamic couple behind the caper venture is Srikanth and Fiona Arakal who invested in the land with a desire to own a business product and process from end to end, and step away from the family businesses. Given their lack of experience in farming or agricultural practices, coupled with poor soil and limited water resources in a drought hit region, the path was challenging to say the least. A lot of reading and meeting people over a two-year period helped narrow down the search for a crop that would thrive in the region, be unique in the agricultural landscape of the country, and have a positive socio-economic impact in the geography. Experiments with planting and nurturing Moringa while finding caper saplings and dealing with the bureaucracy for import of the plants provided valuable on-ground lessons. Organic pest control and fertigation, working with the locals, earning their trust and enthusiasm for the project, were all part of the learning process.

A year into getting the saplings in the ground and trial and error curing attempts of the harvested capers, Ishka Farms settled on the process for harvesting, grading and curing the capers. On-going guidance from caper farmers in Argentina and Australia ensured that an internationally acceptable flavour profile was established for the final produce. The black cotton soil coupled with the intense heat of the region, the calcium rich ground water and the local Tuticorin sea salt ensures a distinct flavour for Ishka capers.

Although Ishka Farms hasn’t yet reached modern large format retail outlets, stand-alone organic stores and restaurants in Mumbai such as The Bombay Canteen and Farmers Store carry a selection of the range. Ishka also sells through my markets in India. Popular online portals such as Amazon India, Place of Origin, Flavours of my City and the Ishka Farms’s own website carry the full range. There is absolutely no need to buy a bottle of imported capers ever again.

Here’s a fun, easy-to-make vegetarian recipe using capers which proves that you don’t have to use them with seafood and cured meats alone. It is one of my old recipes that substitutes cream cheese with paneer and hung curd in the days before Philadelphia or any Indian cream cheeses were available.

A classic cream cheese dip

Karen’s classic cream cheese dip with capers

(Makes three cups)

Ingredients :

250 g paneer

125 g hung curd

3 tbsp cream

3 tbsp oil

1 tsp garlic

½ tsp black pepper, coarsely crushed

2 tsps capers in brine

½ tbsp salt

1 tsp lime juice

Method:

Cut paneer into cubes. Put everything into the mixer except the capers and black pepper. Add the oil a little at a time until the dip is well blended to the consistency of a thick mayonnaise. Add the pepper and capers last by hand.

Serves as a dip with crackers and raw vegetables sticks. Will keep refrigerated for a week.

Author Bio: Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.

This is a fortnightly column. The next edition will appear on April 29.

From HT Brunch, April 15, 2018

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First Published: Apr 14, 2018 23:17 IST