Off-Centre Society

Tastes like gum: The use of tree sap, resin, gum and bark has long been a part of the world’s gourmet history

Jigarthanda ice-cream in Madurai   | Photo Credit: B. Velankanni Raj

Despite spending most of my growing-up years in Dadar, the hub of Mumbai’s middle-class Maharashtrian and Gujarati communities, I’ve never fully understood their shared concept of farali foods. This unique and ancient idea of ‘fasting foods’ — brought into play especially during the monsoon month of Shravan in the Hindu calendar — has always seemed like an oxymoron to me. While people fast, they are allowed to consume a whole pantry of products, from the potato (my favourite thing, ever) to sabudana or sago (my food version of a bête noire). In unlimited quantities to boot!

Living with a mother whose love for sabudana in all forms knows no bounds, be it in a peanut-laden khichdi or the deep-fried sabudana vada, I’ve learnt to reluctantly tolerate this table-space usurper over the years. Never having much interest in knowing more about these clumpy, chalk-tasting globules, it was only recently that I learnt how they are made.

Gum arabic collected from acacia trees in Sudan

Gum arabic collected from acacia trees in Sudan   | Photo Credit: REUTERS

I found out with fascination that sago is made by passing the liquid starch extracted from the pith of palm tree stems through a sieve into boiling water. The resultant tiny, translucent globules are strained and dried. They are used in a whole host of preparations, not just in India but around the world too. From the very British sago milk pudding that’s quite similar to a Tamil javvarisi payasam, to pempek, a savoury Indonesian fish cake, the tiny globules are omnipresent. And greatly loved.

Sap and scrape

The similarly processed, larger-sized chewy tapioca pearls called boba are the main components of the insanely popular bubble tea. This rather photogenic drink (ideal for selfies!) originated in Taiwan in the 80s, and initially used pearls made from the starch of the cassava, a tropical shrub known for its starchy roots. Interestingly, cassava was introduced in Taiwan from South America during the Japanese colonial rule.

The use of tree sap, resin, gum and even bark has been part of the world’s collective gourmet history since the dawn of mankind. Tree barks like cinnamon and cassia have not just spiced up foods and drinks, but have also served as important ingredients in many a medicinal potion and unguent thanks to their antibacterial properties. In fact, Coca Cola, which was invented by American pharmacist John Pemberton as a health tonic in 1886, is strongly alleged to have cinnamon bark as one of its main, highly secret ingredients.

Bubble milk tea in Taipei

Bubble milk tea in Taipei   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock

Home remedy

North of the U.S., in Canada, the xylem sap of the maple tree has been processed into the amber-hued maple syrup for centuries now. First discovered by the indigenous First Nations people of Canada, it is their veritable version of liquid gold.

The thin, colourless sap is tapped from a variety of maple trees, from the red, black and sugar genus, collected via a mesh of connected plastic tubes, and then boiled down on site in aptly named ‘sugar shack’ processing units to a luxuriously viscous syrup consistency. This sweet treat tops everything from breakfast staples like waffles, pancakes and French toast to even plain old parathas — the latter trend I lay claim to starting, after a rather serendipitous accident as a child.

Natural coolant

Turkish traditional ice cream in Istanbul

Turkish traditional ice cream in Istanbul   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Speaking of childhood, my happiest moments were whenever any woman in the family had a new baby. Not because I loved babies, but because I would always be indulgently slipped a piece or two of the acacia tree gum-enriched gond laddoo. Acacia tree gond is legendary as a healthy home remedy to boost lactation in new mothers and also as a general energy booster.

The slightly crunchy, rock sugar-like bite of the gond granules provides an interesting texture, if a tad flavour bereft, when combined with other laddoo ingredients like ghee, dried coconut flakes and jaggery. The Memoni Muslim community has its own gond-based preparation, but in a porridge form called ‘aatha’, and also uses the cooling poppy seeds.

Similar to gond, but attributed to the sweet almond tree, is badam pisin. This almond gum is a natural coolant and has jelly-like properties that give texture and taste to drinks like jigarthanda. The temple city of Madurai is famous for this cooling drink, which literally means “cool heart”, and is basically the sum of its badam pisin, nannari (sarsaparilla) syrup, chilled milk, sugar and ice cream parts.

Another commonly-used tree sap derivative is mastic — a fragrant resin from the mastic tree. Traditionally produced on the Greek island of Chios in the northern Aegean Sea, mastic is an important chewing gum additive. Greek and other eastern Mediterranean cuisines are full of sweet dishes like baklava, loukoumi (Turkish delight), and the stretchy Turkish ice cream called dondurma all flavoured with mastic.

Ironically, mastic is derived from the Greek mastichein, which is the source of the English verb ‘to masticate’. Now, that’s something to chew on!

The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 4:51:57 PM |

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