Could a childhood-favourite food give you reason to indulge without guilt? Turns out it can, if the treat is Indian jujubes or ber.
Few ingredients epitomise the concept of “nostalgia” with such finesse as the Indian jujube or ber. Think about it: it remains largely a seasonal treat that can be had only during the last three seasons of winters (March included); the fruit is still foraged, thus making it one of the last few fruits that fit into the modern “organic parlance”; and has this incredibly addictive taste that makes it instantly likeable across generations.
“In fact, 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, Delhi), who goes looking for these red wine-hued globules of deliciousness in January every year, no matter where he is located. And as luck would have it, finds 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 nutritional properties (a rich source of vitamins A and C) but also for helping us understand how nature works to provide us with some of the finest ingredients just when we need them the most.”
Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotel, Kolkata), concurs and considers it one of the finest souring and umami ingredients that can pair beautifully with both Indian and international cuisine, especially in its marriage with flavoured butter, consommés and as the tastemaker in bruschetta. “The beauty about ber is that it comes at a time when our tongue, thanks to the change in the moon phase, is beginning to change. That change manifests itself as a craving for something that is more towards the tart side, and not just sour. It is around this time of year that the fruit makes it appearance on trees and eventually, on vendors’ carts.”
However, Chef Dewan adds, “The role of ber, a school-time treat for many, doesn’t just stop at enabling our palate to go from enjoying fat-rich diet to a protein-heavy diet, but continues into setting our circadian rhythm in sync. And in doing so, it helps the body digest not just the high-on-fat-and-calories food faster by turning them soluble, but also aids in storing enough retinol in the body so that it can continue functioning at its peak performance through the longest season: summer.”
Experts agree with this, pointing out that even when it is sun-dried and later pickled, provided that in case of the latter, the ber is not cooked, it still functions in this way.
Little wonder that in eastern India, says culinary custodian Alka Jena (founder, CulinaryXpress), “There is a culture of preserving ber – also called boro koli here – in two formats. One is the meetha koli achara that is made through a laborious process of sun-drying, fermenting and preserving; and the other is koli chakka (like a digestive candy, pinwheel shaped), made from the skin and the pulp, and extremely sour in taste. While each is an effective digestive, it is the pickle-making process that ensures the glut of goodness continues.”
The Odia meetha boro koli is sun-dried and then incorporated into a cumin and chilli-flavoured jaggery batter called paga before being bottled, sun-dried again and stored for long periods, although, confesses Alka, “It doesn’t stay that long because of the high craving for the fruit thanks to ber’s role in balancing the pH levels of the different parts of the body.”
But what is it about this style of pickling that adds to the ber’s performance as a superfood? “When a fruit such as ber is sun-dried,” 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 a concentrated, soluble state. Then, the addition of jaggery works as a second layer of preserve and the seasoning of cumin and chillies lends it yet another layer of preservation and taste”.
The fermentation expert adds, “Given that our tongue is still on the sweeter zone, this form of pickle becomes a far more effective and delicious way of getting those nutrients into the system, with probiotics as bonus. On the palate level, while it satiates our craving for something sour, it accelerates digestion too. So, not just the goodness of ber gets digested (and gets to work faster) but also, the food it is paired with.”
Says Chef Dewan, “In fact, in pickled form, 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 itself. Even for those few who love to pucker up, ber is not a treat that can be overindulged in. You would stop right when your body has had enough to process. How does this work? The tongue is saturated after a point, say the experts, who rate it as the next superfood.