In the dark days of Black Thunder, back in the Eighties, when half of Amritsar sat cloistered in their comfortable bungalows unwilling to be drawn out into the uncertain world of terrorist controlled Punjab, I would be beckoned by the unruly market beside the Haathi Darwaza at the outskirts of the old city where the fresh produce of the green fields of the state were tipped out in huge mounds for all to buy, where the creamiest yellow corn , the greenest sag and reddest tomatoes jostled for space with a hill of strange looking papery beige globes with flashes of orange and pale green peeping through.
This is what had lured me out, made me brave the early morning of a cold February, with greater dangers lurking than chilblains or frostbite. Cape Gooseberries, the wrapped fruit, perfect for the muddy pockets of youth , that could be popped into a hungry mouth once the fruit was disclosed from its tissue covers like a precious present, was my goal.
I would wind my dupatta round my head, covering my forehead and around my ears in true blue sardarni style and wander though the heaps of vegetables, stooping to uncover a shy gooseberry to check its colour for ripeness.
In that melee of people, vegetables, hues and life the search for the perfectly ready Cape Gooseberry became all important with an unhurried day of jam making to look forward to, terrorists be damned. At Rs 3 a kilo I could have picked up a large basket of gooseberries without harm to my pocket and done the picking over later.
Today Cape Gooseberries or Lucknowi ki Pitari as they are known locally, or makowi as they are known in North India , are available for a considerably higher price and it would be wise to make your selection before buying by opening their coverings and checking for green immature ones or mould and decay. The unripe fruit is said to be poisonous to some people.
Physalis peruviana L. or Cape Gooseberry, also commonly known as Popati in Marathi, the Goldenberry, Husk Cherry, Ground Cherry, Poha, or Poha Berry, depending on the country and language, are grown in Loni and Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra. Those are sour compared to the Lucknowi ones, says Ahmed my fruiterer, at the century old Shivaji Market in the Pune Cantonment. These are trucked to Bombay from where they are distributed to the smaller towns. Cape Gooseberries are popularly known as a blood purifier or khoon safi and they are known for other medicinal qualities elsewhere being a source of provitamin A (3,000 I.U. Of carotene per 100 g) and vitamin C, as well as some of the vitamin B-complex (thiamine, niacin, and vitamin B,21). In India scientists have isolated from the leaves a minor steroidal constituent, physalolactone C.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, early settlers in South Africa cultivated the fruit near the Cape Of Good Hope from where it derives its name. But it is believed to have originated in the Andes, is native to Brazil and became identified with the region around Peru and Colombia. One writer lists the Cape Gooseberry as one of 'The Lost Crops of the Incas' which makes me think of a hidden abundance of gold, when I look at the Chinese lantern shape of its husk, which protects the fruit while it ripens.
Since the bush grows well on poor soil, with no fertilizer, it is a perfect plant for the Indian rural kitchen garden.. Wherever the tomato can grow so can the gooseberry. In fact when the seeds were transported from South Africa to Australia the plant took to the sandy soil with such a vengeance that it is sometimes viewed, rather unkindly, at as a type of weed in that part of the world.
Because of its high pectin content the gooseberry makes excellent jam and is known as the jam fruit in India, what Mrs Gadsby refers to as "that horrid , horrid Tiparee jam" in Rudyard Kiplings 'The Story of the Gadsbys,' 1888, not because of its taste but because she burns her hand on it.
We are also told by Mrs. J. Bartley in 'Indian Cooking General for Young Housekeepers' published in Bombay 1901.,
"Tipparee, called also Brazil cherries and Cape Gooseberries , is said to be unequalled (in the world) for making jams and jellies. The ripe berries with their weigh of sugar are stirred and boiled gently till the mixture reaches the proper consistency."
The anglisized spelling reminds me of the famous WW1 song. 'Its a long way to Tipperary' and in some way may have had had the same feeling of nostalgia the soldiers departing for Ireland had for British soil and all things British, including jam, which was unknown at the time in India.
Many young people will recall holidays in the hills of the South, in Kodaikanal or Yercaud where the fruit grows wild, and could be eaten directly off the bush or collected to take home and make jam or boiled down to a sticky fudge like consistency and savoured like aam papad.
February is the month when this fruit makes its appearance in local markets but they continue to be available in the South till May.
What follows is , not a recipe for the jam, which is good, but an Indian style Upside Down cake with Gur/Jaggery..
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
40 large Cape gooseberries ( 2 cups)
1/2 cup softened butter
2 tablespoons gur / jaggery bits the size of peas or grated.
1/2 cup powdered sugar
11/2 cups flour (maida)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup semolina ( fine sooji)
Pinch of salt.
1 1/2 tablespoons milk
1 1/2 tablepoons gooseberry juice
4 drops vanilla essence
7"- 8 "cake tin
2 tablespoons whipping cream (optional)
With a paring knife carefully slit each gooseberry across till the stem but keep both halves attached. In a pan simmer the gooseberries over a very low fire till some of the juice is released and the berries become softstill keeping their shape and not pulpy. Take off the fire, pour off the juice and keep aside.
Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter and pour it into the prepared cake tin. Arrange the gooseberries on the base of the tin and sprinkle the gur bits on the top.
Heat the oven to Gas mark 6 or 350 degrees for 10 minutes.
Cream the rest of the butter and sugar together till light and fluffy.
In a bowl sift the flour and baking powder. Add the semolina and a pinch of salt.
Beat the two eggs and add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the juice from the cooked gooseberries and 1 1/2 tablespoons of milk to the mixture. Add the vanilla essence as well.
Now mix the flour mixture into the butter mixture in three parts alternating with the egg mixture. When well mixed spoon the mixture over the gooseberries in a 7-8" diameter cake tin. Place in the oven and cook till done, about 30 minutes. Let it cool and turn out on to a serving plate.
Top with whipping cream.