Almost a forgotten fruit, the Kala Jamun, or the Black Plum, dates back to the subcontinent’s foraging traditions, and desperately deserves to be experimented with in modern Indian cooking
My childhood home had a jamun tree. Back then, most houses in West Bengal, that could have gardens and orchards, would grow the triumvirate of aam-jaam-kola — mangoes, jamun, and bananas — as these three fruits support a family with cash and sustenance. The jamun tree ripened in the summers, The fruit announcing their readiness to be consumed by falling off the tree, and turning into a pulp on the ground. It used to be an eerie sound at night, hearing jamuns plop on the courtyard concrete. In the morning, we would stare at deep violet stains, and juice. The other sign was the monkey attack. Herds of monkeys would travel from localities to localities, like nomads, during the summers, when tropical fruits are ready to be enjoyed. Our mango trees would be attacked, they would recklessly nibble into water apples, and drop half-eaten ones on the ground, jackfruits would be bruised, jamuns would be tossed around. Monkey attacks were quite the nightmare back then. I am guessing smaller towns experience the same even today. Or maybe those monkeys have finally hung their Bedouin boots, and allowed evolution to run its course. The jamun remains a local and seasonal fruit because of its tart, not-for-everybody taste, and the fact that it cannot be that easily worked with, as an ingredient. Given its robust personality, it has to be enjoyed alone, by itself. Like many other fruits, the jamun dates back to our history of gathering and foraging, when fruits and berries formed an important part of every meal. With modernisation and the need for new packaging, many fruits have not adapted themselves into juices, breakfast bowls, yogurts, and ice-cream flavours. The jamun is one of them.
Jamuns are big trees that grow slowly over years. I remember standing under the tree with a wicker basket, as the garden attendant jumped from branch to branch of the jamun tree, shaking them furiously with a rake, to rip the fruits off their stems and fall down, where I was waiting to catch them. We would then wash them, and pop some into our mouths. The sourness would make me shudder, and my gums itch. I would then run off to my parents’ room to stand in front of the mirror, and stick my tongue out to see how crimson it had become. I guess, that was the most fascinating part of eating jamuns as a child. The other was prepping it with sugar. In Bengali, we use a phrase, “jaam-jhaankaani”, to refer to anything that is being given a mighty toss and shake. The phrase used to be mostly used for Calcutta’s old and rickety public buses, that had no concept of shock absorption, and used to be so dilapidated that it seemed that the walls and the seats were being held together by a prayer. People constantly bounced on the seats, swayed from side to side while holding on to the grips attached to the ceiling, crammed inside a noisy, uncomfortable box, hoping to reach their destinations alive. The phrase comes from how Bengalis sweeten and de-seed jamuns. Put jamuns into a big bowl, add sugar and a little bit of salt, cover the bowl with a lid, hold the lid and bowl tightly together, and shake the whole thing like your life depended on it. Kids love doing all the shaking, the “jaam-jhaankaani”, to finally open the lid and find the seeds separated and fruits uniformly seasoned. Decades before my childhood, I have heard, jamuns would be sold for a few paisas by fruit sellers, who would lightly dust them with a salt-sugar mixture and serve on big, round, and fresh sal leaves. I remember my Bengali teacher in school describe the visual of deep violet jamuns on emerald green sal leaves, from memories of her childhood. She had a penchant for poetry, but I must admit, the visual is quite Instagrammable.
One of the most enduring signifiers of the Mumbai experience is having kala khatta gola on Chowpatty beach. This simple pleasure of having a sour ice lolly, dusted with chaat masala, on a windy beach on a summer evening, is unmatched by all the swanky updates the city constantly goes through. Gola is still popular. Kala Khatta is still the king of gola flavours. Kala Khatta or Black-and-Tart is the jamun’s flavour, reduced into a syrup, which is doused on a ball of shaved ice, and sprinkled with a spice mix. The gola, like all kinds of ice lollies around the world, pre-dates ice creams. Back then, the syrup must have been bursting with the fresh flavours of the jamun. Today, it is a synthetic, mass-produced, sugar concentrate. But it’s still black, and still tart, and, well, still jamun.
Fruits like the jamun deserve to find themselves in menus in Indian restaurants. I cannot fathom why we run after exotic berry compotes, and ignore fruits and produce from our own country. Can the jamun not become a preserve? Can it not add a fresh, juicy punch to a salad? Can it not be used for cocktails? Or be turned into sorbets? Or be served as compote with tarts and pies and cheesecakes? I feel the jamun can be a great addition to a watermelon feta salad as the tarty flavour of the fruit will definitely complement feta, and other cheeses, especially blue cheese. It can be a great addition to cocktails, like kokum, which I had written about in one of my earlier columns. Turning into a compote as a companion to desserts is easy peasy, obviously. I would love for someone to make a jamun sorbet too.
This almost-forgotten fruit, wasted away on roadsides, made for generations of childhood memories, and deserves a lot more respect.