Pomelo. The largest citrus fruit in the world makes its appearance around September, around Vishwakarma Puja. From then on, clumps of the fruit, in baskets and bags are sighted as you cross busy markets with the red of the apples and the yellows and greens of other fruits. But you don’t miss the pomelo, not because of its looks but of its sheer size. Said to be the ancestor of the grapefruit, the light green and some with dark green skin has either pink or cream-coloured flesh beneath the thick rind and white thick pith.
Back in school, in the 70s, we spelt it as pummelo. I loved the musical ring to it and the English word made it sound exotic. There were several fruit trees around the periphery of the school and some fruits native to our region did exceptionally well. The memory of silver olives in its spreading spiny self is forever etched in my mind.
Growing up in the town of Haflong, in the district of Dima Hasao (erstwhile North Cachar Hills) in Assam, pomelo was a backyard staple. Late February or early March was when the creamy flowers first made their appearance. It’s the fragrance that I am reminded of. It pervaded the air with a sweetness. And the pollinators were a sight to see!
But the March wind would wreak havoc and seeing the ground littered with fallen blooms, one would wonder how many fruits the tree would be left with. But it was always as if the March wind had done no harm. And there was enough for us to consume and to give away. And for the squirrels too.
People say that pomelo tastes best during the rice harvesting period. And that it should be eaten off a banana leaf. But what goes into a pomelo chutney? A dash of salt, sugar, chopped mint, chopped green chillies, and a drizzle of mustard oil. I have always had it with mint. But once, aeons ago, when my husband was posted at Dhemaji in the northern bank of the Brahmaputra, I visited a neighbour . We headed to the backyard garden and she plucked a pomelo from her tree. Cutting off the rind, she made a chutney using the same ingredients I had mentioned but except for the mint, she used coriander leaves. It was a winter afternoon and during those days, coriander was grown only during the cold season. And pulling up the herbs from the ground filled the air with its unique smell, one that you only get with produce grown during its season. A quick wash, and a rough chop, the herbs were scattered over the fruit. And it tasted so wonderful. Sitting there in a typical backyard garden, with coconut and betel nut trees, cauliflowers and cabbages, brinjal and chilli, tomato plants and more herbs, the garden stretching to the fence where on the other side, was a continuation of winter vegetables. To this day, it remains a beautiful memory.
What else do you try with pomelo? I once made pomelo curd and filled little tart shells with it. But that was a one-time thing. It’s the chutney I go back to. With a variation in the quantity of the additions. And always with a generous drizzle of mustard oil. The taste of childhood in a bowl.
Once, almost a decade ago, on one of my return journeys from my parents’ home I had brought a handful of blooms wrapped in my handkerchief. As I write this it isn’t just the smell but the associations of the day that comes back. It was the last time that I saw my father move a little and smile a little before he passed way in April that year. It was the last journey with my sisters and my brother-in-law together. My brother-in-law passed away in July. Somehow the March wind and rain, the fragrance of these blooms, and the blooms themselves, scattered on the ground, will always be associated with these memories.
A bunch of mint leaves
A dash of salt
Sugar to taste (optional)
2 chopped green chillies
Mustard oil to drizzle
Wash the fruit and pat dry with a kitchen towel. Make vertical incisions on the rind at regular gaps. Remove the segmented portions of the rind by peeling them off. Remove any remaining pith till you get to the pink (or white) flesh. Separate the pomelo segments the same way as you would remove orange segments.
Peel off the papery cover and all the white pithy bits. Discard the seeds and transfer the flesh to a bowl. Add the salt and sugar. Add the rest of the ingredients. Some of the seeds from the chillies can be discarded if you don’t want all that heat in the chutney. Mix well. Drizzle with mustard oil and scatter more mint on top. The chutney is ready.
Instead of green chillies, you could also use bird’s eye chilli oil. In that case the drizzle of mustard can be done away with. It is said that this chutney tastes best eaten off a banana leaf. There are many memories of eating this chutney seated under a blue sky, under a canopy of tall trees, with loved ones. And always on languorous afternoons where the hills turned a shade darker and sunsets were on their way to becoming more spectacular. And these eating sessions would be soon replaced with orange-eating pleasures. But that was another story…