April and May are undoubtedly the cruellest months of the year, but these are also the months in which nature extends its bountiful hand. One of its best gifts to mankind is nongu, the jelly-like edible seed of the palmyra fruit. Nongu is believed to keep away heat-related health problems. Once summer begins, vendors sprout on the roadside with piles of palmyra fruit and pathaneer, the fresh extract from the palmyra tree sap. Cut open the hard shell of the fruit and what you find is the jelly-like kernel rich in minerals. For those struggling to cope with the sweltering heat, pathaneer and nongu are the best way to keep cool.
While children prefer to peel the skin and eat just the softer portions of the nongu, their elders often advise against this practice and insist on eating the fruit whole along with the fibrous skin. Vendors have also devised their own strategy to attract buyers. They make a tasty drink by scooping out the contents of the fruit kernels and dropping them in a glass of pathaneer.
People have also come out with their own innovations to pathaneer. Some add palm sugar and cardamom to sweeten and flavour it, while some refrigerate it to enjoy a chilled drink. There are also several recipes for nongu payasam and nongu soup. But naturopaths suggest that nongu and pathaneer are best consumed in their natural form.
G. Govindaraj of Vandiyur, a roadside vendor, agrees with them. “Once you add other ingredients into the pathaneer and attempt to cook nongu, the minerals in this tasty wonder get lost and it is sheer waste of time, money and energy,” he says. “They have to be consumed in their natural form only to reap full benefit. Even while extracting the drink from the tree we take extreme care. Even a minor lapse can mar the taste of the drink.”
Palmyra kernels have become pricey now. Three or four kernels are sold for Rs. 10. “As retailers we don't have great say in deciding the price of the produce,” says Govindaraj. “Labourers are charging more to climb the trees to collect the fruit, and the landowners are demanding a higher price from contractors,” he says. To recoup their costs, some vendors try to pass off kal-nongu, or overripe kernels, but those are not easy to digest and can sometimes upset your stomach. Cultivated in arid lands, these palmyra trees are a landowner's delight. They require little maintenance, and the leaves, fruits and pathaneer can be sold. But as more lands are being cultivated or divided into plots, the number of trees is dwindling. That again raises the price of palmyra products.
Whatever the price may be, nongu remains a healthy way to keep cool without adding to your fat and protein count.