Around a year ago, a few of us were chatting with the nungu sellers who had a stall under the plush tree-lined roads at Ambarampalayam. The start of summer sees the tree climbers hard at work picking the ripened fruit off the female palmyra tree. This provides short-term employment for the rural folk who arrange temporary makeshift shelters from which they operate during the summer.
While I don’t remember complaining about the heat as a kid, it was certainly heavenly to come home to a bowl full of cool juicy nungu after school. To this day, I prefer the more tender fruit to the mature ones, which have a hard centre. It’s fun to scoop up the slippery flesh and making sure that it lands in one’s mouth and not on the floor. The fruit not just satisfies hunger pangs but also refreshes.
However, the large-scale felling of palmyra trees has seen the number of nungu sellers dwindling over the years. But now the people who depend on the palmyra tree for their livelihood have some reason to hope since there is more awareness of natural sugars like palm sugar candy and karupatti (caramelised palm sugar blocks).
If you look carefully, you will see that the nungu vendor not just sells this gelatinous fruit but also has a large vessel strapped to his two-wheeler. The gunny bag with long strips of palmyra leaf frond poking up is hard to miss. This vessel usually contains pathaneer, the un-fermented nectar derived from the male palmyra tree. The palm fronds are deftly folded to resemble a canoe, making it the perfect biodegradable container for this natural drink. It has a very short shelf life and must be tapped fresh daily. While a small portion is consumed as a summer drink, the rest is boiled down over an open fire to make the palm sugar. Like the fruit, this too has a cooling effect on the body.
I chanced upon a couple of men who had found refuge under some shady trees opposite Valankulam and were deftly slicing their nungu. Vellingiri has been selling the ice apple (as it is known in English) in Coimbatore for two years from this spot. He offers his customers two options: either have the fruit on its own or sliced and added to the pathaneer .
A school girl and her mother stopped for a nungu -take-away. Seeing me chatting with Vellingiri about not using plastic bags, they whipped out a cloth bag and happily wrapped their buys in leaf parcels. If only all customers were as accommodating.
Another huge haul of the ice fruit was spotted opposite the INS Agrani quarters, Kamaraj Road. Samudhram has been in this trade for 15 years and has always operated from the same location. He sources his fruit from farms in Pollachi and insists it is the best food to combat the summer heat.
Keeping in mind a nungu drink that I had saved for a hot summer’s day, several extra pieces went into my basket, much to the seller’s delight. With plans firmly afoot to indulge in a cold nungu payasam, I am ready for my nungu binge.
Nungu elaneer cooler
Tender coconuts 2
Nungu 4 (whole and peeled)
Panam kalkandu powder 1 tsp
Ginger juice 1/4 tsp (optional)
Thin slices of lemon 4
Method: Take the tender coconut water and keep aside. In the mixer jar, add the nungu, 1 cup of tender coconut water, panam kalkandu powder and ginger juice and blend in bursts. Parts of the nungu will have blended well and be frothy and there will also be some will be in bits. Mix with the remaining tender coconut water. Chill for half an hour, pour into tall glasses, garnish with lemon slices and serve.
Nungu 5-6 pieces
Almonds 50 gm (blanched and peeled)
Coconut milk (thick) or cow’s milk 4-5 cups
Panam kalkandu powder 2-3 tbsp or to taste
Saffron a few strands
Method: Cut the nungu into small chunks. Blend the almonds with a tablespoon of milk to a smooth paste. Add a little more milk if necessary. Mix the paste to the remaining milk and set on a very low flame. Keep stirring until it thickens. Do not allow it to boil, especially if using coconut milk as it could split. Once it thickens, take off the fire and stir in the sugar. Taste and adjust if necessary. Drop the nungu chunks into the hot milk and let it steep. Add the saffron. Do not stir. Cover with a loose lid. Once it has cooled, refrigerate for an hour and serve cold.