Taste of life: When roselle found few takers in Poona in early twentieth century - Hindustan Times
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Taste of life: When roselle found few takers in Poona in early twentieth century

ByChinmay Damle
Feb 29, 2024 07:36 AM IST

Roselle came into the limelight when the US federal government decided to popularise it in the early twentieth century. The Bureau of Plant Industry made special efforts to advertise and feature the products in several other states. In promoting the use of roselle, making wine from it was considered the most profitable

Efforts to promote fruits and vegetables extend beyond food assistance and nutrition education to include agricultural, economic, and behavioural research; agricultural extension; and market development and support.

Roselle, known as “ambadi” in Marathi and “gongura” in Telugu, was an annual semi-shrubby mallow, probably native to West Africa. (SOURCED)
Roselle, known as “ambadi” in Marathi and “gongura” in Telugu, was an annual semi-shrubby mallow, probably native to West Africa. (SOURCED)

In the early twentieth century, several scientists and teachers from the Agricultural College, Poona, identified actions they believed could be taken to help people make better dietary choices and increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables. Foremost among them were VH Kulkarni and GB Deshmukh from the horticultural section.

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In January and February 1932, the duo wrote a couple of letters in the Marathi newspaper “Jnanaprakash” requesting the readers to include roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) in their diets. They also mentioned that they were willing to guide farmers and gardeners wishing to take up its cultivation. In February 1937, Kulkarni and Deshmukh wrote another letter in the same newspaper which included the recipes for roselle jam and jelly.

Roselle, known as “ambadi” in Marathi and “gongura” in Telugu, was an annual semi-shrubby mallow, probably native to West Africa. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it spread to Asia, Europe, and the West Indies. It was grown for a variety of purposes in many parts of India, Sri Lanka, Queensland, the Caribbean, Hawaii, the Philippines, and Africa. Almost every part of the plant could be utilised. A strong silky fibre – roselle hemp – was obtained from the stems; the fleshy calyces and leaves were used for food, while the seeds were used in medicine. The fruit, or rather the large, thick, succulent sepals which enclosed it, was pleasantly acidic.

Roselle came into the limelight when the US federal government decided to popularise it in the early twentieth century. The Bureau of Plant Industry made special efforts to advertise and feature the products in several other states. In promoting the use of roselle, making wine from it was considered the most profitable. However, with the prohibition of alcoholic beverages in the United States in the 1920s, roselle syrup was promoted.

European colonists took this as an example and promoted roselle in their colonies. After the 1930s, roselle soda water, roselle sundaes, roselle sherbet, and roselle ice cream were included among the other standard offerings in some of the best restaurants and ice-cream parlours in Manila. In countries like Nigeria and Burma, roselle preserve or jam was made during colonial times. The red and tangy jam was sold in the markets.

But roselle was not a very popular culinary ingredient in India. It was grown chiefly for its fibre, sold as Bimbipatan jute. The leaves and young tender shoots were used to make curries in villages. Some communities in eastern India made pickles and chutneys from the flower. Roselle juice was used as a diuretic and laxative in traditional medicine.

In Maharashtra, the plant was used as “greens”, mostly in poor households. It was considered inferior to other leafy vegetables like spinach, fenugreek, and colocasia by the wealthy. Most Marathi cookbooks published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries do not mention roselle.

Europeans living in India, however, relished it. Several European households in Poona planted roselle in their gardens. It was in season between September and February. The plant was very ornamental with its large pale yellow flowers and dark crimson eyes. The sepals of flowers were just below the petals and were collectively called the calyx. The flowers were followed by red fruits which were set thickly on every branch.

Roselle calyces were used to make tarts. Roselle pie was another popular dish among the Europeans in Poona. To make this pie, a pie dish was lined with paste and filled with stewed and sweetened roselle calyces. The dish was covered with an upper crust and baked. Papaya pulp was sometimes used with the roselle in the pie.

Roselle sherbet was often served to guests. The water was boiled with sugar for 20 minutes. Softened gelatin was added to the syrup and the mixture was strained. Roselle juice taken from stewed roselle calyces was added after the syrup had cooled. Roselle marmalade and roselle sauce were also trendy.

Deshmukh and Kulkarni decided to hype roselle among the Maharashtrian population. The necessity for preserved, canned or dehydrated products was being keenly felt as more people began to travel for work and study. Out of many fruits used for the purpose, roselle presented a unique product in its agreeably acidic and charmingly red-coloured calyx lobes, which could most profitably be used in the manufacture of jams and jellies. Roselle jam was well appreciated by those who relished it. The jelly made from it was considered by many to be superior to guava jelly and closely resembled red currant jelly in taste and flavour.

Following are the recipes for roselle jam and jelly given by Deshmukh and Kulkarni – “To make the roselle jam, strip off the calyces and boil them in aluminium or an enamelled pot with water just to cover them, till they are soft to touch. When it starts to boil, add sugar. Boil the mixture for about ten to fifteen minutes. Remove the scum that forms on the top. Stir once when the temperature reaches 218 degrees F. Bottle the jam in glass jars after sterilizing them properly and capping tightly.”

“To make the jelly, boil the fruit with the seed bag till it is tender to touch. Put it in a cloth and extract the juice. Boil the pulp again with a small quantity of water and mix the strained juice with the first extraction. Boil the mixed juice after adding sugar in the proportion 1:1. Jellying point is reached at 104 degrees C.”

In making jam, the sepals alone were used, while in the preparation of jelly, the whole seed bag was strained off. From 1 lb of fruit, about 2 lb of jelly of good consistency could be obtained.

The calyces could also be dried in air or sun and the dried stuff used to make jam or jelly whenever required. The only precaution to be taken was to soak the dried stuff in cold water for about 2 to 3 hours before boiling the fruit. The fruit was used in colouring guava jelly.

Deshmukh and Kulkarni desired that roselle be cultivated in the native gardens of Poona. It grew in any soil, which drained readily and did not hold much water. No care except that of weeding and watering during hot spells was needed. The bush flowered within three months from the date of sowing the seeds and the calyces were ready for picking up within four months. One plant yielded two to four lb of fruit.

They believed that it was a question of only a short time when the real excellence of roselle would win for the plant’s general recognition; the culture of roselle would then become an industry of considerable importance among the minor crops of India. The roselle fruit did not stand shipment in a fresh condition. Therefore they had to be dried or processed near the plantations. Poona could become an important centre for manufacturing roselle jam and jelly, they hoped.

Their efforts, as we know, were ineffective. Poona did not engage in the cultivation of roselle. Roselle jam and jelly did not become a part of the regular diet in Poona.

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