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How the humble ber became the food of the gods

On Saraswati Puja, the Indian jujube must be offered to the goddess of learning before mere mortals can feast on it. The fruit is not just steeped in myths, but possesses curative virtues as well

It’s in regional medieval literature that we find a few interesting culinary references to jujube. Chavundaraya’s Lokapakara, in Kannada, contains elaborate recipes for sweets flavoured with jujube pulp. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO
It’s in regional medieval literature that we find a few interesting culinary references to jujube. Chavundaraya’s Lokapakara, in Kannada, contains elaborate recipes for sweets flavoured with jujube pulp. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

A peculiar custom popular in Bengal prohibits the eating of kul, or ber, before Saraswati Puja. The occasion is celebrated on Vasant Panchami that generally falls during the peak kul season. Dubbed as Saraswati’s favourite fruit, it must be offered to the goddess of learning before mere mortals can feast on their favourite variety of the jujube.

The young, easily the greatest patrons of the sometimes sweet, deliciously tart, sweet smelling winter fruit, are typically scared into submission. Popping a kul or two before Saraswati Puja would invariably result in poor grades, elders warn. Of course, one later learns how the custom is, perhaps, merely a way to discourage children from eating the somewhat astringent and highly acidic unripe kul. By then you are set in your way.

On Saraswati Puja, in Bengali homes, kul is not only offered to the Goddess as part of the naivedya, but has specific ritualistic use as well. For instance, earthen ink pots filled with raw milk (symbolic of ink) are kept in front of the goddess. A khaager kalam (reed pen) is inserted into the pot, and a single kul is balanced on top of the pot.

However, Saraswati isn’t the only deity that ber or the jujube is associated with. Ber is also among Shiva’s favourite fruits and is offered to him on Maha Shivratri. Vishnu too is associated with the fruit. As Badrinath, he is the lord of the jujube tree, known as badri or badara in Sanskrit.

In fact, Hindu mythology is strewn with references to the jujube (both the fruit and the tree). Archaeobotanical records too, attest to the fruit’s prehistoric antiquity in the subcontinent. Be it the wild ber or it’s domesticated variants, the fruit has been around for thousands of years.

Different kinds of the jujube fruit have been mentioned in Vedic literature including the Brahmanas and Samhitas and later in Sutra literature. The epics—both Ramayana and Mahabharata—too mention the ber. Of course, the most popular story around it features the aged, tribal ascetic Shabari, a great devotee of Ram, who feeds him wild jujubes in the forest. But first, she bites into each ber to ensure that Ram eats only the ripest, but there are other interesting instances that illustrate the status of ber in ancient India.

In Valmiki’s Ramayana, for instance, Rama offers an oblation of ingudi pinda mixed with badara fruit to his deceased father. Interestingly the Vishnu Purana mandates oblations of curds, unbruised grains and jujubes, or balls of meat mixed with curds, barley and jujubes, to ancestors on joyous occasions.

But ber is not just steeped in myths and antiquity, they are also rich in nutrients (antioxidants, vitamins and more) and curative virtues. Ancient Ayurvedic texts like the Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita mention different kinds of the jujube fruits—badara, kola, sauvira,— and liqueurs, pickles and other concoctions made with them and their medicinal virtues. For instance, the Charaka Samhita prescribes “ghee cooked with decoction of kola and lac, eight times milk and paste of aralu, dáruharidrá (bark) and kutaja ( bark and fruit)” to treat chest wounds, and upodika (malabar spinach) soured with badara for haemorrhage. The Vangasena Samhita states that the karakandhu, kola and badara varieties of jujube are sour and help alleviate pitta while old (mature) jujube “pacifies thirst, lessens fatigue and is particularly helpful in boosting the digestive fire.

It’s in regional medieval literature that we find a few interesting culinary references to jujube. Chavundaraya’s Lokapakara, written in Kannada in the 11th century, contains elaborate recipes for sweets made with rice flour, ghee, and fermented milk, flavoured with jujube pulp or juice. On the other hand, the 15th-century recipe book compiled by the Sultans of Mandu, Ni’matnama, recommends mixing cooked rice with dried jujube and rose water, flavouring vegetable oils with jujube flowers and adding the fruit to preserves. The fruit also features in medieval Bengali literary works like the Chandimangal by Mukundaram Chakravarti.

Across the country ber is used extensively to make pickles, chutneys—cooked or pounded—and digestive churan or simply tossed with spices and seasoning to make a chaat. A Bengali favourite, for instance, is the kul makhakul, fresh or dried, tossed with rock salt and chilli powder and a splash of pungent mustard oil, often sold out of carts on street corners and outside school. In Uttarakhand, Chef Pawan Bisht says, the sweet wild ber is picked from the bushes and ground up on a sil batta with ingredients like coriander stalks, chilies or even garlic, to make simple but flavourful chutney.

In southern India, ber has many names—elanthai pazham in Tamil, regi pandu in Telugu and bor hannu in Kannada . The fruit is pounded along with chili, jaggery and roasted spices into a delicious pulp, shaped into small discs or pellets and thoroughly dried in the sun to make a candy like snack.

But the humble ber’s culinary portfolio includes a few interesting recipes. In some Bengali homes, where it is so mandated, whole kul is an essential ingredient for the gota sheddho—a hearty hodgepodge of seasonal vegetables like baby potatoes, tender spinach tips, sweet potatoes, baby brinjals, whole green pea pods, tender flat beans etc are boiled whole, skin et al, along with whole pulses, seasoned simply with salt and often finished with a drizzle of feisty mustard oil. This is made on the day of Vasant Panchami and consumed cold the next day, on Sheetal Shashti. Another must is kul’er tok or chatni, typically made with ripe, tart topa kul and flavoured with panch phoran. “In some Bengali homes including mine the seasonal moringa flowers are added to the chutney,” says Mumbai based food blogger Purabi Naha of Cosmopolitan Currymania. “In Assam, ripe bogori are also added to lentils, especially our favourite mati mahor dail, and light, soupy masor tenga” says restaurateur Kashmiri Barkakti Nath, a champion of Assamese cuisine.

Bor (in Marathi) are an essential ingredient in the Bhogi chi Bhaaji, or the winter harvest stew made the day before Makar Sankranti, celebrated as Bhogi in Maharashtra” says author and food researcher Saee Koranne Khandekar. The Bhogi chi Bhaaji is hearty dish made with a range of winter vegetables like carrots, green peas, green chickpeas, beans and the Indian Jujube cooked with desiccated coconut, roasted sesame seeds and peanuts, jaggery and ground spices, best paired with pearl millet rotis or sesame crusted bhakhri. “The slightly fleshy, green-yellow-orange variety of bor and not the tiny red ones, which we call chaniya-maniya, are used. These add a fruity, sweet-sour note to the stew,” adds Khandekar.

And then there is borkut, which is a powdered, dehydrated form of it. “Borkut is often sold in small packets outside local schools. Its chooran-like flavour makes it popular with kids,” says Khandekar. But it is also used in cooking. “In Marathwada, a dry area, people have ingenious ways of using pantry staples and sundried foods. In combination with sun dried and rehydrated methi, for instance, borkut offers a balance of flavours bringing in concentrated sweet notes to contrast the grassy, bitter notes of the fenugreek. It also acts as a thickener for the vegetable preparation,” she adds.

In Assam too, says, bamboo trays full of bogori laid out in the winter sun in open yards or rooftops is a common sight during winter,”. The sun dried bogori is later ground into a powder—bogori guri “A pinch of bogori guri gives the aloo pitika a whole new dimension,” says Nath. Besides, it’s added to curries and lentils too.

On the other hand, Rajasthani kitchens, famously ingenious with ingredients, turn out sapid curry and piquant stir fry with unripe ber. “At my mother’s the ber ki sabji is a simple, sweet and tangy curry tempered with asafoetida and cumin. We use the larger pemli bor for the dish,” says Mumbai based caterer Abhilasha Jain.

Having said that, the best way to eat ber is perhaps fresh with a sprinkle of salt and chilli powder, under the mild winter sun. The humble ber is the perfect ambassador for simple pleasures of life.

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