The Very Good Berry

A childhood favourite food nostalgia that even the doc says "indulge without the guilt". Meet the addictive Indian Jujubes or ber.

By Madhulika Dash; Images: Alka Jena

They are sweet and tart; extremely addictive, they say nostalgia in bold, and they are limited edition (we mean season, March would be the end). Yup, you read that right. Despite all the agro-advances, some of the best ber comes not only in season but also has to be foraged.

In that sense, it is perhaps among the handful of food (the other being the Kashmiri morels) that fit the "organic parlance" like a glove and without a fight. But are these the key reasons  that make ber one of the most sought after late winter treats or is there more to the story?

If Samhitas are to be believed, ber – the slightly ovate berry not only is a rich source of mineral (from potassium, magnesium to zinc you get it all), but is recommended for its ability to improve blood circulation and digestion. Interestingly, ayurveda considers ber to have the deepan (appetite), ushna (hot) and saaraak (laxative) properties making it an ideal antidote for winter, especially during the end of winter. 

Perhaps that explains why ber is dealt such a roaring reception during its stay, including turning it into an outrageously delicious pickle in Odisha among others. 

One Berry Many Variation

"It is one of those food legacies that can be passed on from grandfather to his grandchildren by the mere act of making them taste a few with a little chaat masala sprinkled on top," recalls Chef Shantanu Mehrotra, Executive Chef, Indian Accent. He till date goes looking for these red wine hued globes of deliciousness in January every year, no matter where he is located. And as luck would have it, find it too.

For me, ber, says the culinary genius, "isn't just about a chance to indulge in an old habit (and taste), but, over the years, has also been about discovering the science behind our culinary wisdom. And that's where ber shines the most, not just for the antidotal properties (a rich source of Vitamin A and C) but also for understanding how nature works to provide us with some of the finest ingredients just when we need them the most."

The Better Pucker

Concurs Chef Sharad Dewan, Director, Gourmet Design Company, who finds it one of the finest souring and umami ingredients that can pair beautifully with both Indian and international cuisine, especially its marriage with flavoured butter, consommés and as the tastemaker in bruschetta.  "The beauty about ber is that it just comes at a time when our tongue, thanks to the change in the moon phase, is beginning to change. 

"That change manifests itself as craving for something that is more towards the khatta side, and not just sour. Around this time the fruit makes its appearance on the trees and with roadside vendors."

Fascinatingly however, adds Chef Dewan, "the role of ber, a school time treat for many, doesn't stop at enabling our palate to go from enjoying the fat-rich diet to a protein-heavy diet, but continues into setting our circadian rhythm in sync. And in doing so, helping the body to create a process of digesting not just the high on fat and calorie food faster by turning them soluble, but also storing enough of retinol in the body so that it can continue functioning with its peak performance through the longest season: summers. And this involves maintaining the way we look as well."

And it does so, points the experts, "even when it is sun dried and later pickled, provided that in the case of the latter, the ber is not cooked." Case in point, Meetha Koli Achara that is made by a laborious process of sun-drying, fermenting and preservation; and Koli Chakka (more like a digestive pinwheel shaped candy) made from the skin and the pulp, and is extremely sour in taste.

In fact, the process of making Odia Meetha Bara Koli which involves  sundriying the berry before lacing it in a cumin-chilli flavoured jaggery batter called paga bus is what gives it the prebiotic and probiotic properties that make it an excellent gut-mind indulgence.

Goodness in A Jar

But what is it about this style of pickling that adds to the ber's performance as a power food? When a fruit like ber is sundried, explains Chef Glyston Gracias, City Chef, Social Mumbai, "it begins losing its moisture and shrivelling. This indicates the beginning of the process of lactic acid (fermentation), which eventually works as a bubble where all the phytochemicals and micronutrients are preserved in the concentrated, soluble state. Then the addition of jaggery works as a second layer of preserve and the seasoning of cumin and chillies lends it another layer of preservation and taste."

Given, says the fermentation expert, "that our tongue is still in the sweeter zone, this form of pickle becomes a far more effective, delicious way of getting those nutrients into the system, with probiotics as a bonus. On the palate level, while it satiates our hunger for something sour, it helps the digestion very fast. So not just the goodness of ber gets digested (and gets to work faster) but also the food it is paired with."

In fact, in pickled form, says Chef Dewan, "it lends that very goodness to a dish that it is paired with." The culinary modernist often uses the season's first souring agent in his butter and spreads not just for that light, spring like taste, but also for its high Umami quotient. But what is really fascinating about the ber, say the experts, "is the fruit's incredible ability to portion it for you. Even for those few who love to pucker up, ber isn't a treat that can be overindulged. You would stop right when your body has had enough to process."