Taste of Life: Watermelon, most prized fruit gifted to & by Europeans in India - Hindustan Times
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Taste of Life: Watermelon, most prized fruit gifted to & by Europeans in India

ByChinmay Damle
May 30, 2024 08:02 AM IST

The watermelon was one of the pleasantest and most refreshing tropical fruits, when cooled they were like the iced fruits in Europe, and dissolved in the mouth like snow. Summer months in Poona were made tolerable by the watermelon

Gift-giving in societies is a means to express and strengthen ties of affinity and friendship. A gift enables one to start or strengthen a relationship of fidelity, by cultivating a feeling of dependence. Toys, jewellery, flowers, electronic and mechanical gadgets, and food are some of the conventional commodities used as gifts.

Watermelons were grown during the hot months in the sandy beds of the Mula and the Mutha rivers; the plants were put down at the end of February and would be ripe in April and May. (REPRESENTATIVE PHOTO)
Watermelons were grown during the hot months in the sandy beds of the Mula and the Mutha rivers; the plants were put down at the end of February and would be ripe in April and May. (REPRESENTATIVE PHOTO)

Bringing food and drink as a gift, a common phenomenon in several peasant societies all around the world, occurred in many circles in European society too. European merchants, diplomats, and soldiers considered gifts as part of diplomacy and offered fruits, vegetables, seeds, and drinks to secure loans, permits, and other favours. Watermelon was one of the most prized fruits gifted to and by the Europeans in India.

Watermelon (“kalingad” or “tarbooj” in Marathi) was a creeping plant, sown in cold and hot months in moist sandy spots in river beds, and manured when six weeks old. The fruits were smooth and round, dark green mottled and striped with a lighter green. The flesh was pink and the seeds black or white. It was eaten both raw as a fruit and cooked in different ways.

The watermelon was one of the pleasantest and most refreshing tropical fruits, when cooled they were like the iced fruits in Europe, and dissolved in the mouth like snow. Summer months in Poona were made tolerable by the watermelon.

India was not known for its watermelons. Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire in the Indian subcontinent, missed watermelons from Samarkand, a city in Uzbekistan. The “Ain – I – Akbari ‘’ mentioned watermelons that came from Badakshan or Kabul. Linschoten, the Dutch merchant and traveller, observed in the sixteenth century that the Indian melons were not as good as those of Spain, and had to be eaten with sugar. Tavernier spoke of the Indian melons as grown from Persian seeds.

Watermelons were grown during the hot months in the sandy beds of the Mula and the Mutha rivers; the plants were put down at the end of February and would be ripe in April and May. However, they were considered to be of inferior quality by Europeans. Those coming from Bharuch, Umred in the Central Provinces and Konkan were favoured by rich Indians. Watermelons grown along the banks of the river Gomati in Lucknow were considered one of the finest in India and were in demand in Poona. Amid the burning plains of Rajputana, the watermelon was found in astonishing perfection and large size. It usually arrived in the Poona bazaars in April and May.

Establishments like Treacher & Co stocked watermelons brought from Kabul and Peshawar. Advertisements specifically mentioned that the fruit was “best suited” for gifting. Even though the Europeans considered it inferior to the varieties grown in Persia and Europe, melons from Peshawar were much prized in Bombay and Poona and were sold at a guinea each in the 1870s. These, along with expensive bottles of liquor, were often sent as gifts to the government house where the governor stayed during the summer months.

Alphonse mangoes were a popular choice as gifts too. But they grew in Bombay, Konkan, and Goa – places closer to Poona than Peshawar and Kabul. Watermelons from these faraway places, hence, carried more esteem and prestige as gifts than mangoes.

Water, and muskmelons cut in slices were hawked about the streets in cart-loads in the cantonment area. But they were thought to be unhygienic by the Europeans. They instead flocked to restaurants like F Cornaglia and Muratore where water ice and fruit ice could be devoured. Special advertisements would be placed in newspapers to let the customers know about the inclusion of desserts like champagne water ice, strawberry water ice, and watermelon water ice on the menu.

Water ice consisted of the juices of fruits, sweetened with sugar syrups, and frozen like ice cream. The best ices were made by first cooking the sugar in the form of syrup. The fruit juices were most frequently strained through a sieve with a little water (and sometimes the whites of a few eggs) to the prepared syrup. It was then frozen in the usual manner. The use of syrups of different degrees of strength was considered the best and simplest method of amalgamation with and giving body to the other ingredients composing the ice; in many cases, however, it was quite sufficient to use the refined powdered sugar without any previous preparation. Neapolitan sugar was considered the best for water ice.

In preparing water ice the principal rule was to be careful of the quantity of sweetening and flavouring used. The freezing process tended to destroy the flavour, or at least to extract it. The simple guide was the palate; it was advised to prepare as if they were to drink, but stronger.

To make watermelon water ice, half a pound of ripe melon was pounded into a mortar. Two oz of orange-flower water, juice of two lemons, half a pint of water, and one pint of clarified sugar were added to the watermelon juice. It was mixed well, strained, and frozen.

Fruit ice too was popular in Poona. All kinds of water or cream ices were equally adapted for this purpose.

“The Complete Practical Confectioner” (1890) by J Thompson Gill gives the following recipe for watermelon fruit ice – “Make a lemon water ice, slightly coloured with an infusion of saffron; when frozen, fill into a melon ice mould; bury in pounded ice and salt for an hour; take it out, and unmould very carefully, not to disfigure it; shade it with extract of spinach, as nearly as possible to represent a natural melon; cave until required; dish on artificial leaves, sticking one somewhat in the shape of a vine leaf on the top.”

The popularity of water ice and fruit ice prompted housewives to use equipment like the saccharometer in their kitchens. The saccharometer was originally designed to determine the quantity of sugar in urine. It soon began to be used by winemakers, brewers, and bakers to check the consistency and density of the sugar syrup. It consisted of a large weighted glass bulb with a thin stem rising from the top with calibrated markings. The sugar level could be determined by reading the value where the surface of the liquid crossed the scale. It worked by the principle of buoyancy. A solution with higher sugar content was denser, causing the bulb to float higher. Less sugar resulted in a lower density and a lower floating bulb. The saccharometer was available in some shops in Poona.

Cocktails were designed in harmony with the time of the year. Watermelon, cucumber, and herbal combinations were refreshing choices in summer. Watermelon juice was mixed with liquors like gin, vodka, tequila, and rum to prepare several cocktails.

Watermelon Punch was a quintessential summer drink much loved in Poona. It was supposed to be the best for outdoor sipping, either on the front porch or in the backyard. To make the punch, watermelon was pureed until smooth. The juice was passed through a fine sieve over a large bowl, discarding any solids. The juice was combined with rum, simple syrup, and lime juice. The mixture was stirred well and kept cold. Just before serving, it was topped with soda.

The social and economic value given to the watermelon demonstrated ingenuity and imagination. Watermelon not only helped people beat the heat but also let men and women define themselves and their relationships with others in the giving of gifts.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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