Meet the unlikely heroes of our affection. And here’s why we go looking for them, especially this time of the year
By Madhulika Dash; Photographs courtesy Alka Jena and Stock Images
Remember the time in schools when among the hordes of street eats, every year these little temporary vendors would appear selling an assortment of delicious berries, imli, shahtoot, barakoli, raw star fruit and mango slices – all served on these little torn newspaper or sal patta platter generously dusted with the most amazing chaat masala made of a variety of puckering-up spices including kala namak. It would be a treat that would topple over the many ice cream vendors with each precious penny spent on it. And once broke, it was the want of it that would take us through the neighbourhood scouring for trees that would be laden with the goodness.
It was an allure that no amount of health scare, parental scolding or the grand aunty calling it ‘al-mal’ (Delhi colloquial for meaningless grub) has managed to diminish. Not then, and not now either, when the bare sight of anyone selling these “nostalgia’ can literally urge to have a pick – no matter our schedule. In fact, for many like me, it was the childhood hobby that made a ‘comeback’ during the lockdown where these so called ‘al-mal’ became our way of little more than reliving childhood – it was a legacy we could share too.
Which makes us wonder, why is it that of all thing food back then, these are the ones that still hold our fascination and palate? The answer to this comes in two folds: One, is of course the puckering up quality of each of these ingredients; and two, is of course the kind of nutrients they pack, especially Vitamin A, which the body doesn’t make, and hence needs to depend on food that are high on the same. And most importantly is third, which is their combined affect on the brain, our blood flow, our enhanced capability to take in Vitamin C and others – which when are in sync give you this sense of utter joy, happiness and want – which in marketing parlance is called “love food”.
Nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin deconstruct the “mind-body game” behind the “love” for such fruits – and the unsurpassable craving that besets us on a mere sight.
If you look at nature, says the wellness expert, “it plays the whole “eat with the season” concept brilliantly – a fact that our ancestors explored, implemented and documented. But what is more exciting in the very nature of how nature does it. Each of the trees are earmarked for the time when they would bloom and fruits – and that fascinatingly coincides with the time that the body needs it – not just us but every living being. Any given season’s nature is in bounty with food that is for indulgence, and those that are food indulgence and taste. An excellent example of this is Shahtoot or the Indian Mulberry. It is around the time when winter ebbs that you would finally see these miniature grapes turn from all green to a luscious burgundy, fragrant and ready to be foraged and eaten. Likewise, is the case of the Indian jujubes (including the marble shaped variety called barakoli in the East). These puckering style fruit though start blooming and fruiting through winters in mainland, it is after the festival of Lohri that one can smell the fruit as the berries ripen and are ready to be eaten.
“Fascinatingly, both barakoli and shahtoot aren’t just fruit that are loved because of the sense of adventure they come with - these need to be foraged even today and cannot be commercially produced like grapes – and of course the sheer amount of nutrients these come jam packed with that range from necessary vitamins, zinc, magnesium and fibre. Nutrients that often body needs in for two reasons: one, for preservation given that they would be required through the year and immediately so as to tackle the imbalances that takes place in the body due to the weather change and to manage the stress that comes with it; and two, to stock up on vitamins and minerals that the body cannot make on its own but needs. Example: Vitamin A and its variants. Essentially, a singular nutrient, this form of Vitamin A works for the upkeep of your body much like an anti-ageing serum by combining with protein components in the body. And this is the nutrient that barakoli has in abundance and so does starfruit. Another nutrient that is present in these foraged fruits is zinc which along with the gamut of vitamins A, C, D, E and K helps in not only boosting the immune system, especially against vagaries of seasonal change, but also improves functionality of the lungs and nose. This manifests itself in the form of how well you can smell, see and even hear. Or in other words, what most poets describe as “the rosy feeling”.
So wellness packed this little bombs of deliciousness is that it was once a highly prized plant in Ayurveda, which used the Indian jujubes to treat the palate that makes a volte face because of the seasonal changes, but also to pacify the vata and kapha dosa in the body. A kind of calmness which often the mind reads it as stress free and for procreation. Interestingly, adds Bhassin, “it is almost the similar feeling that one has when they have ponkh, tender jowar, which is known for its mind calming qualities that leads to one feeling good, even feeling reciprocatively to an idea, no matter how radical.” Incidentally, the addictive masala, especially the one that has kala namak at its base, is considered essential since it takes care of rebooting essential minerals and sodium in the body. After all, when we are moving from winters to summers the change of day depletes us from these resources that needs replenish.”
It is the sum of these varied demands of the body, concludes Bhassin, “that shows itself as ‘craving’ that multifolds on the sight of these little treats, of course with enough impetus given from ‘nostalgia’ that made it a comfort food in the first place.” This year, if you find the thela with all those happy memories, ensure to have your fill. Guilt-free!