Bread and Butter and Sapodillas:
The Dehradun Train
It was years before I knew what they were. Raju didn't know their English names, and he didn’t seem clear on their Indian names, either. He bought two bags of fruit and a loaf of white “English” bread, about half the diameter of the bread I knew back home in New Zealand, and we ate them for lunch on the Dehradun train, going back to Delhi. The yellow fruits weren’t so interesting: oval, about the size of a well-grown olive, shiny-skinned with a whitish, rather soapy-tasting interior. But the brown-skinned ones were Paradise on earth. Honey-sweet. We spread the meltingly soft, thick green-gold flesh on the bread.
Into the Foothills of the Himalayas
By the mid-1970s India had already come a fair way since the days of the British Raj. But taking the train up to Dehradun on our way to a hill town called Mussoorie was rather like stepping back into the past. It was already getting dark when we went to the big central station of New Delhi to catch the train. The platform was very busy, but not so much as to be frightening. Above the noise of passengers getting on and farewelling their relatives, the engine could be heard panting: a real big old black steam engine! Mmm, that steam train smell: coal smoke, but it’s not just that… Engine smell.
The days of steam in India are over now, alas. The photo above was taken at about the same time were in India, the mid-1970s. We couldn't know it, but it was the end of an era. These days Indian Railways don’t run steam trains any more, and the station at Dehradun has become quite a big interchange, with a whole bunch of routes, and there is even a rail service up to Mussoorie, all shiny and new.
The big, grimy, gritty New Delhi platform with its engine smell is fascinating: a great mixture of costumes, most of the men in fairly shabby European clothes, but quite a few in traditional Indian gear, several different styles of turbans. Most of the women in saris or the northern-style pajama-kurta. It’s chilly, and most of them are also sensibly wearing shawls: a big heavy woollen oblong, more like a blanket, really. Draped right round the body and then one end flipped over a shoulder in a very casual-looking fashion: how on earth they stay on, I don’t know! Anything I drape over my shoulder falls off immediately. Probably something to do with their excellent posture: the shawls make them look quite stately. Most are in dark colours, there aren’t many of the bright saris that flower all over the city during the day. A clutch of heavily-robed purdah ladies, getting into a ladies-only carriage: yes, they still have them in the 1970s! I try not to stare rudely, wondering what it must feel like under that black robe, looking out from behind that narrow black lattice over the eyes...
We were travelling Indian-style, but not technically third class—Raju told me the involved story of the name changes to the Indian railway carriage ranking system but as it didn’t make sense, it didn’t sink in. Anyway, it definitely wasn’t rich white tourist-style. As it turned out we weren’t travelling Indian-style enough. We got on, and bought cups of steaming hot, sweet and milky tea from one of the chai-wallahs on the platform: the traditional style of small, unglazed terracotta cups, used once and then thrown away. It’s a very hygienic custom, never mind if its original purpose was merely to avoid drinking from a vessel that someone impure (i.e. from a lower caste) had used.
The train set off with a terrific lot of chuffing and puffing. I didn’t let on that I was fairly used to steam trains: Dad was a mad-keen model railroader, and his club was quids-in with the steam railway nuts in New Zealand, so we went on several of their special steam train trips when I was a kid. But the attraction of steam hadn’t palled!
That trip north would have been enough to make it pall, though, if I hadn’t been young and fit. Me hip wouldn’t do it, now. The thing was, the compartment, which we were sharing with an Indian family who were very polite and non-intrusive but fairly obviously thought we were mad, was intended as a sleeper for those who had brought their own bedding. The Indian family all had bedrolls. We only had our jackets, plus a lightweight shawl that I’d bought downtown. Luckily it wasn’t cold on board the train, though the Delhi nights had been chilly—it was late January-early February. However, those unpadded wooden shelves we had to sleep on were hard. Very hard. I did manage to drowse but I certainly didn’t sleep. Never mind, it was a new experience, all grist to the mill!
Mountains and Monkeys
We reached Dehradun in the mild morning sunshine, and piled off the train to be greeted by a deafening cacophony: a huge tribe of monkeys in a big old tree by the station fence. Suffering David Attenboroughs! I’ve heard flocks of noisy birds, but this! Enough to fry your brain.
Dehradun, In a Picturesque Valley…
Dehradun nestles on the bottom slopes of the Himalayas, which rise suddenly and unexpectedly from the giant, endless-seeming plain. We felt the train straining up the rise to the town. In those days it was too steep for the steam trains after that, and you had to go by road to get higher. The town is 236 kilometres (147 miles) from Delhi: obviously the train wasn’t very fast, as it was an overnight trip going up, and then the best part of a day coming back.
The history of the little settlements in the foothills of the Himalayas would have been quite different if India had never been ruled by the British. Dehradun (“Dehra Doon” or “Dehra Dun” or “Dehradoon” in British 19th-century accounts) typifies the towns settled by the British in the high hills. Well over a hundred years before we went there, it was already being used as the jumping-off point for the hill station of Mussoorie, one of the towns used by the British, especially the ladies, as an escape from the oppressive heat of the plains in the hottest summer months. Like those long-gone ladies, we were also headed up to Mussoorie.
Here’s a mid-19th-century take on the area. The writer, Henry George Keene, was an officer of the East India Company, which at the time he describes, that of the Sepoy Rebellion or “Indian Mutiny”, 1857, ruled large parts of India and maintained huge armies there. Keene was a considerable scholar and historian who published several books and many articles on India and its history. In 1857 he was in charge of the “Dehra Dun” district.
“Further north … was the picturesque valley of Dehra Dun, lying at the foot of what in military parlance were called ‘the hills north of Dehra.’…
“The Dun … possesses some features of singular interest. Lying between the Himalayas and the Siwáliks, it abounds in forest, ravine and swamp; … and it forms the approach to the important European stations of Landour and Mussooree.”
(H. G. Keene (1825-1915). Fifty-Seven: Some Account of the Administration in Indian Districts During the Revolt of the Bengal Army. London, W.H. Allen, 1883. Chapter 1, p.6-7)
Ravines, eh? You said it, Henry! I’d seen precipitous gorges in New Zealand, but the roads in the Manawatu and Akatarawa Gorges were relatively good. We didn’t stay long in Dehradun, but took a taxi up to Mussoorie. The road was shocking: very narrow, badly maintained and rubbly. The taxi driver swung us along with complete insouciance. Only a foot from the side of the car, the ravines dropped away fiercely.
Here’s Constance Gordon Cumming’s pictorial impression of the precipitous drops in the foothills of the Himalayas, which really sums them up:
On the opposite sides of these immense gashes the great grey stone walls, hung with dark blue-green bush, rose up unendingly. Every so often there was a glimpse of a white, evil-looking crag. I tell you what, it was the Chanson de Roland to the life! “High are the peaks, and the valleys shadowy, The rocks dark, the passes terrible:”
Halt sunt li pui, e li val tenebrus,
Les roches bises, les destreiz merveillus
Mussoorie, With Doubtful Curry
“The … town [is] scattered over a wide extent of cliffs and ridges … [with] numerous bungalows...” wrote H. G. Keene. I don't think it had changed much in 150 years: bungalows plus odd-looking two-storeyed structures on the main street, with horridly rickety balconies. The photo below was taken in 1875 or 76, almost exactly 100 years before we were there, and it looked just like it!
Out of season Mussoorie was dark, huddled and unwelcoming. The hotel didn’t even have any hot water for us—Raju had to make a fuss to force them to fill a bucket for us to wash. The bucket, we had expected: it was standard in the Indian hotels. You take it into the tiled bathroom and with the dipper provided, often a recycled tin, pour the water over yourself for your shower. Not only traditional but sensible: the area round Delhi was undergoing a severe drought that year.
The snows had retreated from the little town, but at the end of winter the skies were still dark and lowering, and the mountains were wreathed in cloud—not much view. However, we managed a bit of a trip round and about, and caught a glimpse between two nearer, lower slopes of a towering, snow-covered peak: not Everest itself, but nevertheless so high above us that it seemed unreal.
It ought to remain in my mind as a shining memory of Mussoorie. Alas, what most stands out is that strange meat curry. I'd have been content with vegetarian food, like Raju was having, but he was anxious that I shouldn’t be deprived of meat, so he ordered it.
Very dark brown, and very, very tough. Whatever this animal was, it sure was athletic in its time! Didn’t taste like lamb, and it wouldn’t be beef. Uh… goat? Best-case scenario. …Dog? Couldn’t be horse, the chopped-up bones in it were too small. There was no way of telling. Did I eat it? Yes, of course I did, it would have been very rude not to, not to say, hypocritical. Added to which, both Raju and the wrinkled, gap-toothed man in charge of the food stall were looking at me hopefully. No, there were no ill-effects!
Sounds disgusting? Actually, apart from the toughness, it wasn’t bad at all. Spicy, not too hot, and quite aromatic.
The recipe below, a Kashmiri-style dish, is the closest I’ve found to the Mussoorie doubtful curry. It’s much, much nicer, however!
Kashmiri Roghan Josh
1 1/2 lb [about 680 g] mutton [or lamb];
4 oz [125 g] ghee; 1/3 pint [200 ml] plain yoghurt;
small grain [about 1/4 teaspoon] asafoetida (hing); **
3/4 teaspoon dried ginger; 2 1/4 teaspoon salt; water;
1 1/2 teaspoon red [cayenne] pepper [or chilli powder];
1/2 teaspoon Kashmiri garam masala (below);
1/2 tablespoon shredded ginger;
1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander leaves
Mix ghee, yoghurt & chopped meat together; add asafoetida, salt & dried ginger. Cook, stirring occasionally, till whole of liquid is dried up and mixture sticks to bottom of pan. [Be careful not to let it burn.]
Add 3 tablespoons water, stir till scorched spice and yoghurt mixture is dissolved, & cook again till it sticks to bottom. Repeat addition of water & cooking till dried up again.
Add same quantity of water and continue cooking. Remove from fire, add red pepper and stir till the mixture acquires the colour of the chillies. Add a little more water, stir & cook till it dries. Lastly add 1/3 pint [200 ml] water, reduce heat to very low, & simmer till tender.
Add Kashmiri garam masala, shredded ginger & chopped coriander leaves. Transfer pan (degchi) to hot ashes with live charcoal on lid, or casserole in oven for 1/2 hour.
Serve with boiled rice or chapati. (Overall time about 2 hours.)
** You can safely leave the asafoetida out, or substitute garlic powder, if you can't find any. It’s most commonly available as a powder, with an oniony flavour and a strong, unpleasant sulphur smell. Cooking nullifies the smell. Often used as a substitute for garlic in Indian cookery, it’s also considered to be a digestive, and reduces flatulence.
Kashmiri Garam Masala
1/4 oz* black cumin seeds; 1/4 oz black pepper; 1/4 oz cloves;
1/8 of a nutmeg; 1 oz brown cardamoms; 1/4 oz cinnamon;
3 blades mace
Grind together, sieve, & store in an airtight jar.
(Mrs Balbir Singh. Indian Cookery. London, Mills & Boon, )
* 1/4 ounce is about 7 1/2 grammes. You can see that the proportions are 1 each of cumin, pepper, cloves, cinnamon to 4 of cardamoms and 1/2 of nutmeg. All garam masala mixtures should be made in small quantities and used up quickly. Because of the large amount of cardamom, this is a very aromatic, sweet mixture.
“Rogan Josh”, as it’s generally written these days, has become a favourite Indian-style dish with Westerners, and unlike Mrs Balbir Singh’s version, the modern recipes always include tomatoes. You may well have your own favourite version. Here’s the one I usually do. It’s an amalgam of several, and the result of trial and error. I find the sugar is necessary to counteract the acidity of the tomatoes.
Simple Rogan Josh
1 kilo beef stewing steak; 1 large onion; 1 tin tomatoes;
3 teaspoons ground coriander; 1 teaspoon powdered ginger;
seeds of 6-8 cardamom pods; 1 - 2 teaspoons chilli powder;
2 rounded teaspoons sugar; 1/2 cup yoghurt;
3-4 tablespoons oil; 1/2 teaspoon salt
Optional: 1/2 teaspoon cumin; 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Cut the meat into fairly large pieces, about 3 per person. Slice the onion. Squash the cardamom pods with a heavy implement until they split; remove seeds, discard pods.
2. Heat the oil in a heavy lidded pan or electric frypan on medium heat. Fry the sliced onion until golden.
3. Add the meat, several pieces at a time, with the spices except the chilli powder, and fry until meat is browned; stir gently all the time and take care not to burn the spices. Add chilli powder and tinned tomatoes. If the tomatoes are whole, break them up with a spoon. Cook for a moment, stirring.
4. Add sugar and salt; stir and lower the heat.
5. Cover and simmer gently till liquid is reduced to a thick gravy and meat is tender (about 40 minutes), adding a little water if necessary.
6. Then stir in the yoghurt* and cook uncovered on low heat until it is just warmed through.
Serves 4-6 with rice or chapattis and one or two vegetable dishes as an Indian meal.
*Adding the yoghurt at this stage prevents it from separating. However, if you prefer, add it with the sugar and salt.
Desperately Seeking Tropical Fruit
If you don’t know the name of a fruit, it’s rather hard to track it down. I’ve never seen the yummy ones since. Because it was the end of winter not all the tropical fruits were in season when I was in India, but I’ve tried quite a lot in South Australia. It’s too dry here for them, but they’re “imported” from “interstate.” That is the local usage, yes. No kidding. They’re mostly from Queensland, sometimes the Northern Territory or the northern parts of New South Wales. We don’t get all the northern tropical fruits—or possibly, as with everything else in Adelaide, you have to be in the know, nobody will actually tell you, and go to the market at the right time of year. I’m not in the know, about this or anything else. South Australians are completely parochial: the unspoken assumption always is, if they know it, everyone else (in the whole world, apparently) must know it, too. However, some of the less common tropical fruits are fairly readily available in Adelaide—the more so with the big influx of Asian tertiary students over the last few years.
You can always get mangos in season—though I’ve just seen a foodie documentary which explained that a couple of generations back they were unknown even in a big city like Melbourne. I love mangos, they’re a favourite. Yellow pawpaws (papaya to some), are also a favourite of mine, but you have to be really careful to buy them absolutely ripe, otherwise they taste soapy instead of sweet. Tried the less common pink variety of pawpaw (disappointing: rather hard, not much taste, not particularly sweet).
Pineapples are pretty much a staple, but the only decent pineapples I’ve had here were the special Woolworth’s ones, sweet and not acid. Unfortunately all the supermarkets have started selling pineapples hacked about, minus their tops, so that they start to dry out, and frequently halved as well. True, halving them lets you see how horribly green and unripe they are.
Of the less common tropical fruits I have managed to find, custard apples stand out as my absolute favourite fruit of all time: positively dreamy. The cream-coloured flesh is very soft, sweet and creamy. That is, provided you can find a soft, ripe one that hasn’t been horribly bruised by the moronic Adelaide shop assistants.
I’d known the tinned pink South African guavas years back: alas, you can’t get them here. The gritty texture isn’t to everyone’s taste but I adore them. I had fresh white-fleshed guavas in India, a variety of the same large, fat, true guava, but they weren’t exciting: not much taste.
Lychees are lovely, but their scented, slimy-textured flesh doesn’t appeal to everybody. Sometimes see them here but they never look particularly fresh. I like them tinned, too, though usually too much sugar is added, but the last lot I bought here tasted as if the fruit or the tin had been rinsed with bleach, really horrible. Haven’t tried rambutans, they’re too dear and again, rather jaded-looking, but they’re said to be similar in taste.
Ju, a Chinese friend, kindly warned me that dragon fruit (aka dragonfruit) don’t taste nearly as exciting as they look, but I wanted to try one. It was the red-skinned, white-fleshed variety, Hylocereus undatus, also called pitaya blanca or white-fleshed pitaya. (“Pitaya”, Wikipedia). Startling to look at, but sure enough, hardly any taste. Juicy and refreshing, though: the sort of fruit that’d be ideal on a hot day when you haven’t got access to a refrigerator. No doubt how they’re eaten in Mexico, where they’re grown in great quantities. (They originate in the Americas but the precise origin of Hylocereus undatus is unknown.)
At first I was flummoxed by star fruit: they’re tasteless unless you know the secret of eating them, which I discovered by chance: sprinkle a little bit of raw sugar on them and add a squeeze of lime. Very, very delicate-tasting. Hard to describe them: just off crisp, just off juicy, lightly sweet? Nah, doesn’t cut it. Try one, but make sure it’s completely yellow, don’t go near a greenish one.
We bought pomegranates in Delhi on that trip in the 1970s—great big juicy ones, sweet but with that typical acidic flavour. Lately they’ve crept into up-market Aussie kwee-zine, scattered on anything you care to name: salads, meat, fish, desserts… My bet is that the moronic telly gurus who sprinkle them so artistically on their dishes have never actually sat down at a dinner table to eat a dish thus decorated. What do your trendy, up-market guests do with the SEEDS, telly chefs? Because you cannot eat them. They’re much harder than passionfruit seeds. Spit them out? Yeah, right.
The other big fruity taste treat I had in Delhi was sugar cane juice. Sinful. Gorgeous. The street vendors crush shortish lengths of the ripe cane in a big mangle, believe me or believe me not! The taste of the cane—slightly earthy, with the scent of sun-dried hay—comes through. Mmm-mm!
Solved At Last! Sapodilla
Finally a knowledgeable Chinese friend who grew up in KL solved the problem for me. How she got it from my fumbling description, goodness knows. The gorgeous little brown-skinned fruit that I’d remembered for nigh on forty years, since that train ride in India, must have been sapodillas. Thank you, Jin!
I had a feeling that I’d seen that name before, so I rushed off to check my bookshelves. Yes: Jane Grigson writes under “Sapodilla”:
“The fruit is meltingly soft, something of the size of a Chinese gooseberry, round or oval, with brown skin. The flesh is honeyed, brownish-fawn, the taste reminds people of brown sugar. The seeds set off this restrained harmony by being black and shiny, svelte and long, neatly finished with a little twist at the top and a white stripe down one edge.”
(Jane Grigson. Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book. Harmondsworth, England, Penguin, 1983)
Setting aside the fact that they must have some really runty Chinese goosegogs in Blighty (kiwifruit, “kiwi” if you must), she’s pretty well spot-on. Though our sapodillas were round, not oval, and about three centimetres in diameter. That lyrical description of the seeds hits the nail on the head, too! But the flesh of the lovely fresh ones we ate was definitely greenish-gold, rather than brownish-fawn. Unlike kiwifruit, the skins are not fuzzy.
From Yucatan to Dehradun
Once you know the name of something it’s much easier to research it! The sapodilla tree is native to tropical Central America and the West Indies; some claim it originates in Yucatan. The tree provides chicle gum, the base of the first common type of chewing gum. The “sapodilla” (Manilkara zapota) has lots and lots of names and has spread all over the tropical areas of the world. Only presumably not to northern Australia, or if it has, they’re keeping very quiet about it. It fruits profusely in India, where one of its common names is chiku, presumably from the Central American names chicosapote, chicozapote. In Jamaica and some other parts of the Caribbean the fruit is called the naseberry. There’s a very readable article online at: “The Naseberry, Sapodilla or Chikoo at Silver Sands Jamaica”, which tells us:
Naseberries are picked when mature and ripened off the tree. The ripe fruit softens, and you simply break it open with the fingers to reveal a light brown to rust-coloured flesh with shiny black seeds. Some people eat the skin but I find it a bit rough. Discard the seeds and pop the juicy flesh into your mouth. It’s so sweet that the late Forbes Burnham, former Prime Minister of Guyana, once exclaimed that “only a woman is sweeter than the sapodilla”!
Jane Grigson would have agreed with the writer: “Descourtilz must have known what he was talking about when he wrote in Flore des Antilles, that ‘an over-ripe sapodilla is melting, and has the sweet perfumes of honey, jasmin [sic], and lily of the valley’.”
Here’s the exact quote.
Michel Etienne Descourtilz (1775-1835). Flore pittoresque et médicale des Antilles, ou, Histoire naturelle des plantes usuelles des colonies françaises, anglaises, espagnoles et portugaises; par M.E. Descourtilz. Peinte par J. Th. Descourtilz. Paris, Pichard, 1821-1829. Vol. 4, p.113.
Descourtilz discerns several varieties of sapodilla, the shape of the fruits varying somewhat. We ate type 3 in India: round, without the elongated tops and pointed bottoms that others have. Wikipedia tells us (“Manilkara zapota”) that the number of seeds of the sapodilla can vary from one to six; thus the cut fruits can look quite different.
The lovely illustrations in Descourtilz’s work are by his son, Jean-Théodore Descourtilz. “Jean-Theodore was a noted ornithological artist who published Oiseaux brillans du Brésil in Paris in 1834,” as well as illustrating his father’s work. (“Jean-Théodore Descourtilz,” Wikipedia). Below are two of his illustrations, showing different types of sapodilla.
They’re charming, but they don’t capture the essence of the little fruit. I don’t think you could better the words of Descourtilz, Senior, who was quite a word merchant. His multivolume book is a lot more than just a scientific tome of his day, dated horribly in our eyes by its old-fashioned arrangement according to the plants’ effect: more mediaeval than modern. Dip into it if you get the chance: you’ll come across some lovely passages, of which his encomium on the humble little brown sapodilla is typical. Reading it, I experience again that journey across the wide plains of northern India, a drift of the soft jade of young crops, on the old Dehradun train:
…fondante, et offre les doux parfums du miel, du jasmin, et du muguet.