Consumed at every stage of its life cycle, the sugar palm — known as tadgola or taal in India — is a complicated fruit with a complex flavour profile. While the young seeds (ice apples) are popular, the true celebration of the ripe fruit is done during the late summer months in Bengal in the form of Taaler, Bora, Luchi, and Kheer.
The sugar palm, or tadgola, or taal tree, dots the Indian subcontinent’s coastal states, and the fruit is consumed at two stages of its life cycle around the country. Most of the country enjoys the tadgola as a translucent, fleshy chunk, bursting with water, held together by a thin film of a skin. The tree is common in other south-east Asian countries too, and these fleshy-watery chunks are called ice apples. What many of us might not know is that, these chunks are actually the young seeds of the fruit which is unripe, and can be found at this stage during late spring and early summers. As the summer continues, the seeds start hardening, and the west and the north of India — and much of the other south-east Asian countries — lose interest in the fruit. As the fruit ripens, the skin turns reddish-black or purplish-black, and the fruit forms a densely packed fibrous flesh that shelters three or four seeds or stones within. The stones, once juicy and watery, are irrelevant now. The flesh — once non-existent — becomes the obsession of Bengal, Orissa, and Tamil Nadu, at this time. This transformation happens after the monsoons have lashed their worst, and the climate is back to being hot, with the added humidity of occasional rain.
I have had a very confusing relationship with the fruit. My fruit-obsessed father introduced me to the ice apple. I did not like it. Bengalis also have a famous shondesh (genre of dry sweets made from dried chenna or fresh, unpacked cottage cheese, often mispronounced as “sandesh”, the Hindi word for message) called the Jolbhora (translates to “filled with water”), which is inspired by the ice apple’s watery centre. The shondesh, shaped like a symmetrical ice apple, has a liquid rose water centre (during winters, it is filled with liquid jaggery). I always preferred the Jolbhora to actual ice apples. I cannot be blamed. But come August, and Bengalis become obsessed with the taal fruit. The ripe fruit has a fiery orange fibrous flesh now, is soft and gooey, and has the most intoxicating fragrance that travels for miles. The thick and viscous pulp is laboriously extracted from the flesh, and is then formed into a batter to make deep fried Taaler Bora, or sugar palm fritters, is added to dough to make Taaler Luchi (poori), which is served with spicy Aloo Dum, and is stirred into thickened milk to make Taaler Kheer. Unlike Tamil Nadu and other parts of south India and Indonesia, Bengal and Orissa do not consume the ripe fruit by itself. While I do not enjoy the ice apple, I have been absolutely addicted to the various dishes made with the ripe fruit since I was a kid.
Taaler Bora, Luchi, and Kheer are the main components of the bhog served to Krishna during Janmashtami, making it a culinary tradition in eastern India’s Vaishnav and Krishna-worshipping families. My family cannot be counted as one, which could be a reason why the tradition of making these delicacies with the taal fruit is not practiced. My parents always depended on neighbours and friends to send the dishes over, as did I. Whenever I would bring up “learning how to make Taaler Bora”, the process of extracting the pulp from the fruit would make my mother shiver. Over years, I just grew to believe, from various sources, that it was quite an arduous process.
So, true to form, I decided to find out for myself.
If you have a ripe and ready-to-cook taal fruit, the crown of the fruit comes off easily, and then you can just pull at strips of the skin and remove them. The reddish-black fruits are a tad more bitter than the purplish-black ones, due to the presence of a steroidal saponin (I have obviously done my research). Once skinned, you can pry the three (or four) sections of the fruit apart, the fibrous flesh surrounding the stone. The flesh is a bright orange in colour and the fragrance is warm, heady, and alcoholic. Like treacle or mead. Houseflies and fruit flies shall wander in through your windows very soon, excitedly sauntering in. I had to go fetch the electrocuting tennis racket immediately, as the kitchen started to look like I had dragged in a week-old carcass. The fragrance is thick, and refuses to leave, and is the identity of the flavour of the ripe fruit and the dishes made with it. Those who do not acquire a nose for the fragrance, do not take to the dishes. Once the sections have been pulled apart, the hard work begins. Wet the flesh with a little bit of water, and start massaging it to loosen the pulp from the thick fibres. Once the pulp starts relenting, harder squeezes will start drawing it out. A grater is a useful tool at this point, to ably extract the thick, gloopy pulp, and also sieve the fibres. This is a painstaking process. A medium-sized fruit took me an hour’s time. Once the pulp has been extracted, it is necessary to heat it on fire with some jaggery to dry out the moisture, so that the extract can be preserved. This was the first time I was tasting the ripe fruit by itself. It had a soapy texture, smooth and creamy, with hints of sweetness, and a bitter aftertaste. Cooking the pulp on heat burns off the bitter.
The Taaler Bora is basically deep fried fritters made with a batter of pulp, rice and wheat flour, jaggery, fennel seeds, poppy seeds, dessicated coconut, and a pinch of salt. The fritters are to be fried reddish brown, ideally in mustard oil, to add another nuance of warmth, are crunchy when hot, become fudgy-chewy as they cool, and age deliciously, with every passing day. The Taaler Luchi, made by adding the pulp to a poori dough, is a mildly-sweet delight with spicy potatoes. The Kheer, my absolute favourite, is a luxuriously creamy custard, with sweet and warm umami notes from the taal fruit, with dessicated coconut added for some bite.
It amazes me how Bengali women have been able to create such simple but flavourful recipes with such a common fruit, building a culinary tradition that is non-existent anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, the laboriousness of the preparation is leading to an art form being lost in history, unappealing to younger generations. While bigger families earlier had many female members who could participate in the extraction and cooking process, today’s smaller families cannot make such extravagant and time-consuming demands. Maybe, slowly, the ice apple will be all that we know of the sugar palm fruit, and we might just forget forever that when the fruit ripens, it can lend itself to a variety of gastronomic adventures. While that is an outrageously depressing note, it is also a wake up call for restaurateurs, food writers, and academicians, to ensure that we rescue dying traditions, educate new generations, and keep the conversation alive.