One of the greatest pleasures of childhood was coming home to an empty house on Saturday afternoons – we had a half-holiday on Saturdays and the happiness of wearing what we called “civil dress” – basically anything but our ugly school uniforms of blue petticoats with white blouses and hard-as-a-cement-wall black leather shoes! On the way home, there were many dawdling stops at the carts piled with brilliant red ber – the small sweet-sour berries which make you suck your cheeks in with pleasure at their tartness, occasionally finding a worm in it! You were okay so long as it wasn’t a half-worm!
Then there’d be stops at the guava seller’s bandi (cart), the cart which sold green and red batanis (hard peas) of which I could demolish kilos at a sitting, the shop which sold oily potato chips and finally, loaded with all the favourite things, I’d slowly make my way home. To spend an afternoon reading to my heart’s content, no classes, no one telling me to do things – bliss!
One Saturday afternoon, while carefully picking out the ber, squishing each one to get the right degree of ripeness – you buy overripe ones, they tend to smell like brandy (according to my mom!), I left my tiffin carrier on the bandi and went home. The honest chappie hands it over in the school office. Unfortunately, everyone in the office had gone home except the Princy – a total horror of a nun – we shall call her Sister P – who, fuming with indignation over the ignominy of having been handed over a lowly tiffin dabba – identified the owner and gave me a royal shelling, going so far as to call my mother to the office to complain about my ‘unruly’ behaviour! Neither the parents nor I thought it was such a big ‘sin’ and to this day, I wonder what her grouse really was!!
Hyderabad was those days not so urbanised and the colonies were dotted with copses of henna and ber bushes. My grandfather’s house was in an area called Berban – literally forest of bers and many weekends were spent mucnhing on these, small star gooseberries and grapes – which grew in abundance in the gardens around…
Ber – Ziziphus mauretania to give it it’s correct name – Indian jujubes Wiki says – though I’ve never heard this before! Wiki, the mother of all knowledge also informs me that in Ethiopia, they are used to stupefy fish!! How??? They defintiely stupefied me with their sweet-sour deliciousness but fish???
High in Vit C and a million medicinal uses, the seed is also a source of biofuel… i’m almost ashamed to be a human being and the recipient of so much bounty from one single little berry!
The best way to have these is to just wash and eat them but if you do want to make something exotic, here’s a really exotic chutney!
- Semi-ripe ber (regipandu/ elandapazham) – 1 cup
- Jaggery – if the ber is very sour – 1 or 2 tbsp.
- Red chilies – 5
- Green chilies – 2
- Jeera – 1 tsp
- Urad dal – 1 tsp
- Mustard seeds – 1/2 tsp
- Oil – 2 tbsp
- Chana dal – 1 tsp
- Asafoetida – 1 pinch
Wash the fruit well. Squish each between your fingers till the seed pops out. Discard the seeds. Set pulp aside. Eat some – just for fun 🙂
Dry roast the red chilies, green chilies, chana dal, urad dal, asafoetida and cumin. When cool, powder.
Heat 1 tbsp oil and fry the ber for 8 – 9 minutes till done. Cool and grind along with the powdered masala and salt. Add jaggery if using. Temper with mustard seeds in hot oil. Pour over.
And next time the Princy catches you, offer her some ber – she might let you off with just a warning instead of a few juicy ones (those, not bers!)