“Shall I send you some nellikai?” The question triggers memories of my paati’s home in Mysuru. Hot June, vacation time, and as the rest of the house slumbers, my playmate Uma and I head to the gooseberry tree with low-hung branches where we pick the light green berries, pretend they are vegetables and ‘cook’ with them using our Chennapatna toy kitchen set.
We giggle as we watch each other’s faces pucker at the tartness, but that does not deter us. Older cousins have taught us well and we quickly chase the gooseberry down with a tumbler of water. We marvel at the sweet taste in our mouth and go aaaaah.
For the sake of nostalgia alone, I buy the nellikai (called amla in the North). After deliberation with my mother (who suggests sweet morabba) we finally decide to make it into thokku — a healthier and the less ambitious choice. This, of course, is followed by nellikai talk with several friends on WhatsApp.
In the know
Latha Anantharaman harvests nellikai from her farm near Palakkad, and bottles them in brine. On hot days, she dashes into her garden, picks leaves from the ajwain plant, plucks Kandhari chillies and grinds them all with coconut and the homegrown gooseberry. She adds curd to it for a refreshing, healthy raita.
- 15 big gooseberries
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups water
- A big pinch of salt
- 1 stick of cinnamon (broken into 2 or 3 pieces)
- 4 to 5 cloves
- 2 dry red chillies
- 2 tsp oil
- Wash and boil the berries in water for about five minutes and drain well. Either cut the berries into segments and discard the seeds, or just score each berry, leaving the seed in. This is to ensure the sugar is absorbed well. Heat oil, add the dried red chillies, cinnamon and cloves. Fry for a few seconds. Add sugar and water. Bring to boil on a slow flame. When the sugar has dissolved completely, add the gooseberry. Continue cooking on a slow flame for 20 minutes to half an hour, till the syrup thickens and is reduced to 2/3 of its original quantity. Add the salt. Remove from heat and cool. The syrup thickens further on cooling. Store in dry, clean bottles with tight lids.
Her family recipes of pickles and even supari made of gooseberry have sheltered them from the demonic summer loo winds of summer, Smita Shakargaye from Bhopal is convinced. Smita, who makes her own papads and pickles, says one of her favourites is wedges of berry spiced with black salt, cumin, pepper and sugar and sundried into a digestive supari. Bengaluru-based Usha Girish shares a morabba recipe (box).
Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty in Coimbatore, sends me organic gooseberries sourced from her farmer friend Manju Ilango, who grows them in a 30-acre organic farm at Thalavadi in Erode district. “I wish more people would consider making jams, pickles, juices and powders with them,” she says, “Our kids should be as familiar with nellikai as they are with oranges or apples.”
The drought-resistant gooseberry is one produce that ticks all the boxes of being local, therefore sustainable, and of course great for boosting immunity, says Dr Abhilash Anand of Maitreyi Vedic Village at Aliyar on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border. He is the managing director and chief Ayurveda physician there.
- 500 gm gooseberry
- 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 2 tsp mustard seeds (one tsp for tempering and the other for roasting and grinding)
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 1/2 tsp asafoetida
- 5 tbsp oil (sesame oil preferably)
- Chilli powder to taste
- Salt to taste
- Put amla in a vessel with no water. Place the vessel in the cooker. After two whistles, turn the cooker off and cool. De-seed the gooseberry and coarsely mash/pulse in the mixie. Make sure it is not too smooth and a few chunky pieces are desirable. Roast the fenugreek and mustard seeds, then cool and powder. Heat oil and temper with mustard, asafoetida, and curry leaves. Once the mustard splutters, add turmeric, chilli powder to taste and salt (add a little more than you usually would). Mix well and add the coarsely mashed gooseberry. Cook on a medium flame. Adjust salt and chilli powder if you wish. After about 10-15 minutes, the oil starts separating. Add the mustard methi powder and mix well. Cook for a further couple of minutes. Make sure the mixture does not burn. Switch off the gas and allow the mixture to cool. Put into a glass bottle with a tight lid and enjoy. PS: If the gooseberry is too sour, add some jaggery to it.
“There are endless benefits, if used wisely. In Ayurveda it is used to restore balance in the body, boost metabolism and rejuvenate organs. It de-toxes.” he says. The gooseberry can be a part of one’s daily diet, but in moderation, he cautions. “In rare cases, it may lead to acidity.”
According to gerontologist Dr Rahul Padmanabhan, “Vitamin C does complement the immunity mechanism in our bodies. It helps prevent and fight infections.”
“The season for gooseberry is from April to August and some of the best berries are harvested now, in May and June,” says Manju. She is sad that she has not been able to visit her farm this year. “Our manager there says the harvest is bountiful and the boughs of the trees are sagging with the weight of the fruits. In the good years we have harvested thousands of kilograms.”
Ironically, says Manju, there are few takers for something that grows so profusely here. “We should use the nellikai a lot more instead of chasing expensive supplements and unseasonal and exotic alternatives. We should be bottling it and pickling it. Whatever we do with our mangoes, can be done with gooseberry.”