Ever Heard of Tree Tomatoes!

Tree tomatoes or Tamarillos made an appearance in my Bangalore home last week. This juicy, sweet, and citric fruit had managed to escape my memory altogether. No clue how that happened, given that Tamarillos belong to those exotic category of things that I intrinsically associate with my hometown, Shillong.

Naturally, I was delighted to spot them spread out on the floor along with several other vegetables including Chayote and neatly pieced Pumpkin.

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Pic 1: The reddish orange Tamarillos peeping through Chayote and Pumpkin

All of these had travelled a distance of about 3000 Km. all the way from the hills of North East India to the Deccan Plateau in South India. Strange, you may think, but such a thing is common when my parents come visiting me.

My disapproval in the past regarding the uselessness of carrying additional baggage has had no effect on them especially my father, who takes great pride in displaying the produce of his kitchen garden. I have since made peace and if this gives them pleasure so be it.

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Pic 2: The egg-shaped ripe Tamarillo

This time my parents were surprised with my enthusiasm over their extra baggage, which was only because of those reddish-orange oval fruits. [I have no clue whether to classify it as a vegetable or a fruit. I believe technically it’s a fruit but known as a vegetable.]

Back home, we also refer to tree tomatoes as Anda-Begun, which literally translates as ‘egg-eggplant’. Not surprising, afterall it’s a close relative of tomato, eggplant, and capsicum.

I am not sure many people in India are aware of this unique fruit and hence this post.

Ripe tree tomatoes have a smooth and shiny skin. The colour varies from red to yellow to deep mauve. Some even adorn dark longitudinal stripes.

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Pic 3: Aren’t they gorgeous!

The flesh is juicy and filled with many small flat, circular edible seeds. The taste is flavorful, sweet yet tangy, and the texture is somewhat similar to the usual tomatoes but pulpier. Tamarillo has a high content of Vitamin A and C.

Google says Tamarillos or Cyphomandra betacea are a subtropical fruit, thought to have originated in the high altitude Andes forests of Brazil and Peru. Surprisingly, Tamarillos have disappeared from their native habitat and happen to be listed among the lost foods of the Incas, known as the ‘tomate de arbol’. It was in 1967 that tree tomato got the commercial name of Tamarillo, which was to avoid confusion with the common garden tomato.

In India, tree tomatoes grow between elevations of 1,000 and 7,500 ft. Hence, their occurrence in places like Assam, Meghalaya, Uttaranchal, Nagaland, and Himachal Pradesh is understandable. They are also found in certain hilly pockets of West Bengal, Maharashtra, and in the Nilgiri hills of the South India. The latter did make me wonder as to why I never saw the fruit in Bangalore.

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Pic 4: The mouthwatering Tamarillo Chutney

At home, we usually prepare Tamarillos as a chutney and serve with rice or roti as a side dish. The chutney can be refrigerated and consumed between 10 – 12 days. We have also used Tamarillos in preparing fish, which surely must be attributed to my Bengali lineage!

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Pic 5: Here’s the recipe for you
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Tales of Pithe-Puli

Fast Disappearing Exotic and Traditional Home-made Bengali Sweetmeat

A pan filled with oil simmered over a low flame as Ma peered onto it maneuvering a shining steel spatula with her spectacles daintily perched at the edge of her nose. Driven by curiosity, I take a closer look to discover the diamond-shaped flattened cubes seething in the hot foaming oil. Tossing and turning the cubes, she patiently waits for them to turn a reddish brown.

It was a Sunday afternoon and ‘Chana Daal Pithe’ was underway at my Bangalore home. Yes, it was that time of the year when my parents were visiting me.

Anybody who understands Pithe, knows the amount of labour that goes into its making. And Ma managed all of that single-handedly and more so after she had prepared breakfast, cooked lunch, even got me a bowl of fruits sometime in between, and doing a dozen other chores around the house. As I watched her with awe yet again, the same old thought crept into my mind – “Why don’t I have half the energy she has and how does she manage time to get so much done!” All mothers have superpowers, I swear!

Chana Daal Pithe is an irresistible mouth-watering authentic Bengali sweetmeat. It is made by mixing boiled and mashed bengal gram, sweetened coconut shreds, khoya (milk thickened and solidified by heating in an open pan), and refined flour. The diamond-shaped flattened cubes are crafted out of the mixture and deep fried in vegetable oil. They are then dipped in sugar syrup, which is spiced up with cardamom. It’s often served by garnishing with a layer of kheer over it. (Kheer is milk with sugar, thickened to a certain consistency by boiling over low flame). Chana Daal Pithe is one of those special dishes that comes from Ma’s kitchen and like many other things is on the brink of extinction. I don’t know how many of us have the time and energy to prepare pithes even though we love to eat them……..I for one wouldn’t have the patience, I know that for sure! Grate the coconut, boil the gram, mix with flour, sugar and kheer in perfect proportions, and the right proportion happens to be really important, fry them over low flame while you prepare the sugar syrup separately…………PHEW!

At the same time it upsets me to think that the future generations may never know what pithes are and how they taste. After all, you don’t get to buy pithes off the shelf. Though, I did see a few during Poush Sankranti in a sweet shop in Kolkata a few years back but definitely those wouldn’t taste like the home-made ones. A business opportunity hidden there? Hmm…..

Pithes are indigenous home-made Bengali sweets that are traditionally prepared during Poush Sankranti (Makar Sankranti) in the month of January. Pithes can be of various types. There are those that are common across all sections of Bengalis, then there are those that are indigenous to certain regions of Bengal. Again, some pithes are made from refined flour, while others require rice flour; some should be sweetened with jaggery while sugar suffices in others; in some potatoes are a must while some cannot be imagined without bananas, again others require jackfruit or dates; there are those that are deep fried and those that are steamed or boiled – the combinations are endless.

Pithes are not any random dish and are not a part of our usual menu. It’s definitely not what fish is to us. Pithes are distinctive and special. It has to be a Poush Sankranti or a special occasion for pithes to make their appearance.

Besides Bengal, pithes are also popular in the states of Orissa and Assam. However, each state has their own set of unique and distinctive pithes. 

Pithes have also been associated with a special kind of love, affection, and indulgence. Many of us associate our grandparents with pithes. I remember demanding pithes from my Thamma (paternal grandmother), who would not only be delighted but would do anything under the sun to fulfill our wishes. And Thamma’s pithes belonged to a different genre altogether, the range of pithes was way broader and the taste couldn’t be reproduced by anyone in the family.

Today, pithe is ritualistic each time we visit home or parents come over. A visit to my Pishi (aunt – dad’s sister) in Guwahati is also ritualistic each time I go home, and she will invariably have some pithes in store for me. Some of which would be prepared in a special manner for a longer shelf-life so that I can bring them back to Bangalore to savor at leisure.

Back in Bangalore, it was Chana Daal Pithe that Sunday afternoon and it didn’t stop at that. Puli Pithe, Lobongo Lotika, and Sureshkhowa happened on the following days. All of that prompted me to write about pithes, as I know for sure that pithes will soon become a thing of the past. Even now, the world swears by roshogollas as Bengali sweets, not many know about our exotic pithes.

I’ve already described Chana Daal Pithe, here are few more pithes that are popular at my home:

Patisapta: White elongated rolled pancakes made with milk, refined flour, and semolina, stuffed with coconut or khoya or both; often served by dipping in kheer.

Lobongo lotika: Dipped in sugar syrup, stuffed with khoya or sweetened coconut shreds, the square-shaped parcels are created by neatly folding flaps of kneaded and rolled out flour, the ends of which are secured with a clove; and the clove in turn brings in a sudden pungent and spicy burst of flavor that sharply contrasts the sweet taste.

Puli Pithe: Semilunar flour parcels, folded with a definitive pattern at the edges, stuffed with kheer or sweetened coconut or both; optionally dipped in sugar syrup.

Malpoa: Round flat, fried pancake dipped in sugar syrup, Fluffy inside with crisp edges made from khoya, flour, fennel seeds; often served by dipping in kheer.

Aloo Pithe: Perfectly rounded reddish brown balls can be easily mistaken for gulab jamun; made by mixing boiled potatoes, kheer, refined flour and immersed in sugar syrup.

Dudh Puli: Rice flour dumplings with a stuffing of coconut and date palm jaggery boiled in thick milk, which is again flavored with date palm jaggery

SureshSureshkhowa: Small oval balls made by mixing flour, semolina, coconut, with an optional sugar syrup coating; this can be stored for a longer duration