Chuck that Kiwi: Check these Native Fruit Instead

Simrit Malhi is a fruit whisperer. Here, she shares some of that hard-earned field wisdom about a few lesser-known indigenous fruit, alongside some much-loved varieties. Most importantly, you will learn when they are in season, how to cook them, how to pair them, and even how to grow them at home.  

From the Himalayas to the tropical south, we are lucky to be blessed with a variety of climatic conditions that allow fruit from all over the world to find a home. India holds the distinction of being the world’s second largest producer of fruit, and are now the world’s top producer of several fruit, including guava and banana — neither of which are indigenous to India.

Sure, we are lucky to have the 'King of Fruit' be native to our country, along with the coconut and even the pomegranate, but we (and the plant kingdom) accepted globalisation a long time ago. Neither the onion, garlic nor chilli are native to this country, having *only* reached some 5000 years ago.

And so it is with our fruit.

Our world was a mash-up of food, culture, plants and people centuries before the Internet and 'neo-globalisation'. The idea of a 'pure' race, species or culture is, at best, imaginary. Nonetheless, we have a treasure chest of indigenous fruits that are often, too 'inconvenient' to be mass produced, due to either a short shelf life, annoying seeds, or a long gestation period. But they hold within them the stories of our ancestors, of our land and our culture. They need to be saved, if only to maintain the intricate cycles of biodiversity that we, and our planet, thrive on.

Grewia asiatica
Phalsa is a small berry in a gorgeous plum colour, with a hard shell that hides white, grape-like flesh inside. The berry is sweet, but balanced with astringent, acidic and sour notes, or the flavours of cranberry, grape and jamun. Unsurprisingly, given the fruit’s arrival during the scorching months of summer , it acts as a coolant and is used to treat dehydration.

Peak season 
Phalsa is a summer fruit, and is readily available from March to June acorss the country. The harvesting season however, is short, lasting only three weeks. 

How to cook it
Phalsa sherbet is a legendary summer drink employing its tart flavour and anti-coolant properties to full effect. It is, however, exceptionally difficult to de-seed. Traditionally, the fruit is soaked overnight in a shallow bowl of water, squished by hand, and then passed through a sieve.
Once juiced, it is easy to make the delicious syrup that has long been a delicacy in northern India. It is often used as a substitute in recipes that call for black currant.

Flavour complements
Cranberry, strawberry, mulberry, cherry, jamun, tomato, mint, bananas, lamb/game, pinot noir, chocolate, salt.

Growing the fruit at home
The phalsa tree is a drought-resistant, hardy plant that can grow in most kinds of soil. Because it is more of a shrub, and the flowers are beautiful, it makes for an excellent house-plant.

Phalsa berry, native Indian fruits, Simrit Malhi
Water caltrope, native Indian fruits, Simrit Malhi

Trapa genus
Contrary to popular belief, singhada is not the water chestnut. Though they look and behave extremely similar, the true singhada is far more sinister — winged like a bat, it is extremely poisonous when raw.

Though not of the same family, the water chestnut could be called a close 'family friend'. Fresh chestnuts are flavourful: sweet, nutty and tart, flavoured like a cross between coconut and apple. Water chestnuts are a staple in Chinese cooking, often found in stir-fries and wantons. Seeds of some species of these nuts are preserved in honey and sugar, and candied.

Singhada or water caltrope however, is darker, and has a nutty flavour, reminiscent of chestnuts, brazil nuts and peanuts, with a hint of sweetness. Its texture is starchy and crumbly. 

Peak season
Not unlike other shelled nuts, caltrops are an autumn and early winter treat. They are most often planted in June, and bear fruit in November.  

How to cook it
They are either boiled or slow-dried and roasted before opening. Be warned that opening and extracting the meat is a time-consuming task. Traditionally, the fruit is dried and ground to a flour called singhare ka atta, used in many religious foods and ubiquitous in the phalahar (fruit diet) during the navratas. There are also several versions of a singhada ki sabzi made around the country, putting its starchy fullness to good use.

Flavour complements
Star anise, mango, pepper, bacon, Indian masalas, soya, garlic, vinegar, mayonnaise, spinach, green onions, asparagus, onions, oyster sauce,  prawn, chicken, beef, pork.

Growing the fruit at home
Water chestnuts are easy to grow in any container that holds water. Seed tubers directly into soil and fill with water. You will have to uproot the plant to harvest, since the nuts are the root of the plant.

Averrhoa carambola
Green and firm when raw, and a subtle yellow with 'burnt' edges when ripe, this fruit is named for the star-shaped discs it yields when sliced. The fruit is fragile but crunchy to the bite, a watery hybrid between grape and pear. Ripe starfruit are mildly sweet, with sugar content that hovers at about 4%, and a tart, sour undertone. Unripe starfruit are firm and sour, and taste very much like green apples.

A variant of the starfruit is the Indian variety of bilimbi. This fruit is far more acerbic, and without the five ridges that lend its cousin a visual edge. Bilimbi lemonades are famous and the fruit is often used in chutneys, pickles and jams.

Peak season
Star fruit season is year-round, although they flourish during two particular times of the year: September through October, and January through February. 

How to cook it
The starfruit has travelled far and wide, and both raw and ripe varieties are used all over the world. They are used in relishes in Australia, consumed dried in Jamaica, and used in Thailand and China to cook alongside shrimp and fish. Many in India use raw star fruit as a substitute for tamarind, even using it to make a starfruit rasam. Both ripe and raw starfruit are great in salads, particularly on Asian-inspired menus. They also make for great desserts when stewed. The starfruit is presently going through a renaissance on the cocktail front, and many bars in India have wholeheartedly embraced the fruit.

Flavour complements
The duality of starfruit is in its mild flavor. Although too subtle on its own, the fruit's delicate  flavour lends itself to pairings very well. See: Bilimbi, kiwi, pineapple, orange, banana, strawberry, cacao, cashew apple, guava, citron, coconut, cucumber, kokum, kumquat, lemon, lime, lychee, mango, mangosteen, nungu, papaya, passion fruit, pomegranate, pomelo, rambutan, amla, sweet lime.

Vegetables: Tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, celery root, celery stalk, cabbage, radish, shredded raw papaya, shredded raw mango, kimchi, onion.

Herbs, oil, and spices: The star fruit is well complemented by most nuts and seeds, apple cider vinegar, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, lemongrass, chilli, turmeric, coriander, cumin, black pepper, basil, mint, liquorice, anise, clove, nutmeg, cardamom, saffron, vanilla, black tea, green tea, sugar syrup, jaggery, agave, vodka, rum, white wine, champagne, ginger, sesame oil, coconut oil, coconut milk.

Growing the fruit at home
The ‘Maher Dwarf’ variety bears small to medium-sized fruit on a three-foot tall tree. Its beautiful pink flowers make it a pretty addition to any garden, even when the fruit is not in season.

Starfruit: Native Indian fruits by Simrit Malhi
Native Indian fruits by Simrit Malhi

Limonia acidissima
As the name suggests, this fruit literally looks like an apple made out of wood. Its hard, wood-like exterior conceals a creamy orange pulp.

Its flavour is sweet, pungent and lemony, with a pleasantly fermented aftertaste. When raw, it can be compared with the tamarind. The texture of its flesh is granular and fibrous, yet damp and sticky. Its numerous tiny, hard seeds require no spitting or removal. You will know the fruit has ripened when you catch a whiff of its unique aroma: a fermented sweetness, similar to raisins or blue cheese!

Peak season
India’s bael season is February through May. 

How to cook it
A few soft, consistent blows with a heavy knife around the middle will help open the fruit. Raw wood apple is often used as a substitute for tamarind in chutneys, and in a delicious Andhra pachadi with yogurt and chillies. The ripe fruit can be used in a variety of desserts — from pancakes to custard, panna cotta and ice cream.

Flavour complements
Tamarind, orange, lemon, lime, kumquat, vanilla, coconut milk, dairy products, chilli, fennel, pepper, nuts.

Growing the fruit at home
The wood apple tree, grown from seed, can take up to 15 years to fruit. They grow into large, shade-giving trees — perfect for the dry plains that they are native to.

Bael (wood apple): Native Indian fruits by Simrit Malhi
Karonda: Native Indian fruits by Simrit Malhi

Carissa carandas
A nutrition-heavy wild berry, the karonda is an olive-shaped fruit with tiny seeds at its core. These pinkish-white berries are sour with the dry astringent taste of jamun. They do have a slight, almost-salty taste that lends it the depth of umami. Extremely addictive when sprinkled with a bit of rock salt.

The natal plum (Carissa spinarum), bears close resemblance in name, appearance and lineage, and cause many to mistake karonda for its sweeter cousin.

Peak season 
Fruit harvest is August through October, though unripe fruit gets plucked from May to June. 

How to cook it  
In India, karonda has traditionally been relegated to the pickles-&-chutney aisle. However, in its ripe form, the karonda has now become commercially viable as India's answer to the maraschino cherry.
They are also a great substitute for recipes that require cranberries, turning a tender, luscious purple as they ripen. A great source of natural pectin, these berries also make for great  jams and sweet pickles. When sweetened in brown sugar, clove, and cinnamon, karondas can substitute apple in tarts and pies. For a more modern riff, they are great addition in salsas; their flavours balancing well with avocado and lime.

Flavour complements
Cranberry, raw mango, amla, orange, lemon, pear, ricotta, almonds, tamarind paste, turmeric, chili, garam masala, parsley, fenugreek, asafoetida, coriander, lime, mustard seed, garlic, vinegar, salt, curry leaves, white wine, nutmeg, anise.

Growing the fruit at home
Karonda is a perennial evergreen that is often used as spiny ornamental plant with beautiful jasmine-like white flowers. It grows well in most parts of India.

Native Indian fruits by Simrit Malhi

Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis
India is one of only three countries in the world that grow this fruit, and we must start putting it to good use. This intriguing fruit has no pulp, juice, and or seeds. It wholly consists of rind – but oh, what a rind it is.

On her website, chef Julie Logue-Riordan writes about cooking with the zest, describing overtones of  ‘coconut, macadamia nut, banana, light caramel and cinnamon.’ Buddha’s Hand also trumps other kinds of citrus in that it lacks bitterness, and the zest can be used whole.

Peak season
Buddha’s hand season is in the winter, from November through January.

How to cook it
You can substitute this fruit in any recipe calling for a lemon zest, but its complexity carries it far beyond the call of duty. A teaspoon of finely ground rind can go into tea, smoothies, juice, or even plain water. Same with alcohol infusions (Buddhacello!). It also makes for delicious vinaigrettes, marinades for tofu and fish, in soy dips, tamarind pastes and date-based sweet glazes.

Flavour complements
Fruits All citrus fruit, passion fruit, apricot, peach, fig, pomegranate, cacao, bel, date, wood apple, kiwi, kokum, tamarind, kumquat, sea buckthorn, mango.

Vegetables: Bell pepper, tomato, bamboo, asparagus, fiddlehead fern, beans, raw papaya, leeks, cucumber.

Herbs, spices, and oil: Vanilla, cocoa, jasmine, orange blossom, mint, honey, coconut oil, white wine, vodka, amaretto, rum, olive oil, mustard, wasabi, thyme, lavender, lemongrass, green tea, black tea, miso, ginger, coriander, chilli.

Growing the fruit at home
The Buddhas Hand is often planted as an ornamental tree in gardens, patios and terraces. It grows best in temperate conditions. Trees can be grown from cuttings of branches that are two to four years old.

Buddha's Hand: Native Indian fruits by Simrit Malhi
Targola: Native Indian fruits by Simrit Malhi

Borassus flabellifer
This coconut-like fruit has a tough, black shell. It cuts like a coconut on the top, to reveal three translucent, sweet, jelly seed sockets, like lychees with no pit. Inside, this pod is a refreshing, sugary liquid similar to coconut water.

Peak season
Palm fruit season is perfectly timed for the hot summers in South India from May through August. 

How to cook it
Its sweetness and gelatinous texture makes it a popular choice for sweet dishes from around India — it is delicious deep-fried in flour or rice batter. Thai pancakes are made from its flesh; it is also used in milkshakes, smoothies and juices. The jelly part of the fruit is covered with a thin, yellowish-brown skin that can even be eaten raw, boiled, or roasted.

Flavour complements
Coconut, lime, mango, pineapple, papaya, jackfruit, sweet lime, orange, pomegranate, lychee, longan, kiwi, apple, pista, guava, dairy, avocado, rice, almond, cardamom, rose water, saffron, jaggery, pistachio, basil.

Growing the fruit at home
Taargola grows on large, beautiful palm trees, which will be difficult in a balcony, but do very well in even a tiny garden space. 

Native Indian fruits by Simrit Malhi

Rubus niveus
The Mysore raspberry grows rampantly, but is hard to find in markets because of its high perishability. They do freeze well though, and will keep up to a year.

Unlike other variants of raspberry, the Mysore raspberry is red when unripe, and slowly shifts to a gorgeous, deep blue before settling on a rich purple hue. Taste-wise, they are more delicately flavoured than their more famous siblings, the raspberry and blackberry. 

Peak season
Mysore raspberries grow year-round, but the berries peak from May through July.

How to cook it
In India, they are mostly just eaten straight off the plant. Mysore raspberry can be used as a substitute for any recipe calling for red raspberries and blackberries.

Flavour complements
Apricot, cherry, fig, grape, date, plum, pomegranate, balsamic vinegar, basil, sage, mint, citrus, cinnamon, clove, ginger, cardamom, rose, port, red wine.

Growing it at home
Mysore raspberries can easily be grown in your balcony garden, and often grow so profusely they will have to be constantly pruned to prevent overgrowth. Watch out for the spiny thorns, that are sometimes even on the leaves. 

Mysore raspberry: Native Indian fruits by Simrit Malhi

Simrit Malhi lives on her permaculture farm in Kodaikanal, runs a fair-trade farmer co-op and believes we can eat our way to a healthier planet. Follow her here

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