In the last of this series S. MuthIah talks about fruits like the Achacha that found their way to Australia, thanks to the immigrant fruit farmers.

Good, good, the fruits of Australia certainly are, to a fruit-lover like me. Walk into any neighbourhood fruit-and-vegetable mart in Australia — and most of the ones I've visited are run by Chinese — you'll find the variety of fruit on display mind-boggling.

Several varieties

Every fruit on display, be it apples, pears, peaches, plums, melons, citruses, grapes, cherries, mangoes and bananas, to mention just a few, seems to come in several varieties, not only based on which part of Australia or the world it comes from, but in its numerous sub-species as well. In addition to such regulars there are piles of exotic tropical fruits like the papaya and the pineapple, the mangosteen and its kin as well as the custard apple and its relations. Unfortunately, the better half is a stern minder and allows me only an apple, a pear or a slice of papaya, but persuaded by my daughter bends enough to permit a taste here, a taste there.

And that's how I would get a nibble of that ‘Queen of Tropical Fruits', the mangosteen, or of its kin, the rambutan, lychee and longat. In that process, thanks to a daughter who is adventurous and explorative with anything to do with food, I discovered the achacha - and truly is it achacha, as they would say somewhere up north of the Vindhyas.

The achachais a fruit native to the Amazon basin in South America and is a cousin of the mangosteen. Looking like a small-sized Banganapalle mango, about three inches long and two in diameter, it has a bright orange skin that's thick and fleshy like the mangosteen's but is not as hard; it doesn't have to be broken, it can be peeled.

Unlike the mangosteen's four or five small segments with one larger one, the achacha has only two segments, one very large one that's almost all flesh and a smaller one with seed, similar in size to the mangosteen's largest segment. Its white pulpy flesh is just like the mangosteen's but slightly tarter and there's so much more of it. I fell in love with it —and it was minder mind yourself one dinner time. I was told the skin could be blended with water and ice to make a refreshing drink, but I'll leave that to someone else to try the day we begin importing achachas.

The fruit, I was told, was being widely promoted in Australia from early 2010 after it was found that it grew well in Queensland. Now that's the State which offers tropical fruit aplenty but its mangoes and bananas — as well as those from elsewhere in Australia — offer bulk, but are nowhere near Indian mangoes and plantains when it comes to taste.. So I was perfectly content with just a nibble or two that followed invitations to “Try this one.”

All this fruit-tasting took place shortly after the Queensland floods. And those floods affected one of Australia's favourite fruits — and foods — the long, pale green-skinned banana that's almost a meal in itself. It may be a whole meal, but to me it's almost tasteless. Nevertheless, that's what many an Australian sought at the fruit shops at that time, wondering when the green bananas would be on the shelves again. It would take a long time, they were told, and were offered the smaller yellow bananas of New South Wales. What was Queensland's heavy loss, was a gain for the banana farmers of New South Wales. But what I found intriguing was that both losers and gainers were Sikhs long settled in Australia.

I'd long known — and even visited — the Yuba Valley in northern California where hundreds of Sikhs had settled in the early 20{+t}{+h} Century. They had thrived as farmers and horticulturists there and now are among the biggest fruit farmers in the U.S. Their cousins in Australia, I now found, had followed the same path to prosperity: growing fruit.

The earliest Indian immigration to Australia was between 1800 and the early 1860s. The immigrants were mostly from eastern India; some were convict labourers, others brought as farm labour by British settlers who had worked in India. None of this was very popular with the authorities or with the ‘fair dinkum' Aussie. More acceptable were the North West Frontiersmen who came as camel drivers to Queensland and Victoria and as itinerant Muslim vendors who travelled to scattered settlements, their carts laden with a variety of inexpensive household goods. All these immigrants would not have numbered over 1000 when the next wave of immigration began.

Business prospects

The second wave was from the 1860s to the first years of the 1900s. These immigrants were mainly from the Punjab, the majority of them Sikhs who would work as itinerant farm labour and most of the rest Punjabi Muslims who continued the traditions of travelling hawkers and pedlars. The Sikh workers found employment cutting sugarcane or in fruit orchards or vegetable farms on the northern New South Wales coast and its Queensland extension, travelling from Cofts Harbour in New South Wales to Carins in Queensland. By 1901, the number of Indian migrants and their progeny had grown to about 3000, mostly in the Richmond River and Clarence River Districts of northeast New South Wales and the coastal Cairns and Bundaberg Districts of Queensland. About half of them were Sikhs, some married to Aborigines, others to poor Whites.

For long, there had been local agitation against this migrant labour. The Immigrant Restriction Act of 1901 put an end to labour coming into the country, particularly from India and China. But migrant labour settled in the country before the Act was allowed to stay. And the Sikhs put down roots in northeast New South Wales and parts of Queensland.

Gradually, they moved on from being cane-cutters, potato-diggers and fruit- and vegetable-pickers to becoming renters, then owners of sugar-cane and banana farms. The right to own their farms, many of which they worked on rent, came only after 1922-23, when Madras statesman Sir Srinivasa Sastri on a visit to Australia made several fiery speeches and reasoned appeals on their behalf. Today, these farms have become large-sized properties, worked by the Sikh owners themselves, their relatives and seasonal labour.

The largest Sikh settler population is in Woolgoolga in northeast New South Wales, one of the largest banana-growing centres in Australia. When the Queensland floods wasted the banana plantations of Queensland — several owned by Sikhs — the smaller bananas from the Sikh farms in Woolgoolga began fetching a premium.

It was only after the White Australia policy came to an end in 1966 that Sikh migration began again. But the migrant Sikhs today seek the larger urban areas of New South Wales and Victoria where their mechanical skills find them running taxis, car washes, service stations, electrical and mechanical repair shops etc. But the better off Sikh remains a fruit- or vegetable-grower. ‘Think bananas, think Sikhs' would not be too much of an exaggeration. Nor would it be a crazy flight of imagination to think of them saying achacha as they take to achacha-growing in Queensland.

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