Scent of a lemon
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- Published 27.04.11
When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade. Wise. But the author of this sage advice seems to have had a rather limited taste for the citrus, to put it down so among life’s sour experiences. And to call it the unpleasant fruit of some seriously misjudged action of ours. No, no, I feel the lemon has been squeezed unjustly into a spot. Of course the maxim goes on to offer hope, suggesting that even a ‘lemony’ experience can be fixed — a spunky twist, a determined squirt and you have a cloudy drink of fragrant lemonade, moisture softly misting up the tall glass.
But there is time to get wistful yet, for singer Trini Lopez gaily trills about the lemon tree being sweet and its flower very pretty. Yet when it comes to the song’s conclusion, Lopez belts out with the dreaded finality of an alto, that the fruit of the lemon is impossible to eat.
Honestly, I too would never have given much thought to the fruit till life handed me an uncommon lemon one day. The gondhoraj. As the huge specimen still attached to a fresh green twig gave off a most sublime fragrance in my hand, the old mali of our garden solemnly told me that its name meant the king of fragrance. The straggly shrub growing by itself in a sunny corner had borne its first season of fruits. And what a fruit.
Since that season, we had slices of gondhoraj lemon on our table almost around the year. To add some zest to an insipid dal or enhance an already inviting Bekti Fry, all we had to do was ignore the thorns on a branch and pluck a gondhoraj. The pale segments inside never yielded much juice but with such overpowering scent that travels even to other rooms and invites you to the table, you need not ask for more than a few drops of this ambrosia. But the fragrance of gondhoraj evaporated from my life, taking every drop of its delicious juice with it, the moment I stepped outside Bengal. Gondhoraj lebu, it seems, doesn’t take to the soil of any other part of India except our very own backyards in Bengal.
I have sniffed high and low, since then, over the Western Ghats and along the Arabian Sea, across the Brahmaputra plains and the Indian Ocean, following every waft of citrus scent borne in by the sea breeze, for the king of fragrance. One such scented breeze drew me to Thailand. The floating market of Bangkok, I noticed, was very noisy. And erupting with a thousand interesting scents. Picking out one scent from the teeming river of fresh food, vegetables and flowers was nearly impossible. But this fragrance stood out from the rest. And it was strikingly similar to our gondhoraj. A bent and wrinkled yai (granny in Thai) shoved a bunch of dark green leaves into my hands. They were the leaves of kaffir lime, stewed widely in delicious Thai curries. The actual lime, I learnt, is rarely used in cooking and is summarily trimmed off the tree to encourage a lush crop of scented leaves. The scent of the kaffir is indeed beautiful and back home, many nostalgic Bengalis settle for the kaffir lime or Thai lime as the gondhoraj. I knew I had discovered another beautiful lime, but my search was far from over.
Alexander the great to the gondhoraj man
My search for the elusive gondhoraj had now gained almost mythical proportions. And I was travelling up and down the country, meeting many of its lumpy, warty, smooth-skinned or tarty cousins hitherto unknown to me. In the temple city of Madurai, I peered into a huge stone jar of pickle and came out with an interesting fragrant lime. The citron. In ancient days, the citron had started from India, crossed Persia and reached the Mediterranean countries, with none other than Alexander The Great. When it reached Europe, it was so revered for its medicinal properties that it won the scientific label, Citrus Medica. And the Jews have included the fruit in their religious feast of the Tabernacles as a symbol of life ever since. In southern India, where it is lovingly called naarthangai, it ends up mainly in amma’s delicious pickle. No, the citron is yet again a very close cousin of gondhoraj but not the gondhoraj.
Did you know that almost all citrus fruits in the world can trace their roots back to our very own backyard? The north-eastern parts of India with Burma, Malay Peninsula and the surrounding areas thrown in? Well, I didn’t. Most forms of citrus you see today, from the tangerine to mandarin, pummelos to sweet lime, come from a few indigenous breeds growing in this fertile triangle between the forested Himalayan foothills and Burmese plains. And that is where my beloved gondhoraj seems to be locked too.
After many attempts to coax the gondhoraj to grow in my Mumbai lawn, I gave up gardening altogether. And started flying in small batches of the fruit, straight from the farmer’s market in Diamond Harbour. When the first batch arrived, I excitedly sent around a parcel to my best friends. But most of them called back saying they didn’t know what to do with it! It was then that I realised I had to also instruct the world on the wonders of this fruit.
Gondhoraj Bekti, an old favourite with a twist, seemed a good place to start. Rub a fresh and firm Calcutta Bekti with a light blend of spices. And infuse it with a few drops of gondhoraj. The royal transformation hits some deep olfactory region in the brain and lingers right up there for a long time afterwards. While the palate receives the full flavour of the lemon-fish, head on. And swoons!
They say you can go a long way if you have a zest for life. Well, here I have mine which I liberally sprinkle on a host of things, wherever I go. An impromptu barbecue to mark the opening of the glass gazebo on the lawn? The juice of gondhoraj sizzled and hovered in a fragrant smoke over the chargrilled fish. Or, take a freezing weekend in a Scottish castle with no modern heating whatsoever, my wife’s idea of a romantic vacation. I shook out a gondhoraj from my SOS kit and squeezed it into an ounce of whisky and a three-fourth ounce of dry gin. Then shook it well with some ice. And dropped in the lemon peel for good measure. Friends and acquaintances soon came to call me the gondhoraj man, with an immense zest for life. And for this last fault, they just point to the oversized citrus somewhere nearby.
Sometime during this period, I went to Dhaka for the opening of a new restaurant. Oh! Calcutta had taken to Bangladesh as a graceful duck takes to water. And I set off into the surrounding regions, sniffing out the best ingredients for our new kitchen. In hindsight, I feel that the lord of fragrances drew me out into the deep alluvial plains of Bangladesh. I was just outside a city called Rangpur. The air hung heavy with a beautiful scent and I found my steps tracing the golden yellow soil, into an orchard. There were rows upon rows of citrus fruit trees. And there was my gondhoraj, growing everywhere in splendid abundance!
Rangpur Lime or Citrus Limonia is the scientific world’s gondhoraj. It is a rare blend — between a mandarin and a lime —and grows in various avatars, from lime green to orangish gold colour. Again it is a very choosy breed and grows only in some far-flung parts like in South China, where it is called Canton Lemon. Or in Japan where it may be called the Hime. It seems the gondhoraj has followers scattered around the world, with its essence used in marmalades and is even at the heart of an old brand of gin from London.
Now that I had found my Shangri-La, the home of gondhoraj, I could find some rest, nursing a plate of Gondhoraj Chicken Wings. And drowning it with Tanqueray Rangpur Gin.
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Calcutta Bekti (cut into 2.5inch squares)
10 pieces (75g each)
Sour curd 100g
Green chilli paste 45g
Salt to taste
Refined oil 20ml
Ginger paste 30g
Gondhoraj lime 4-5
Garlic paste 5g
Grate the gondhoraj lime rind finely. Cut the lime and squeeze the juice. Prepare a mixture with half of the chilli paste, lime juice, lime rind and salt. Marinate the fish pieces in this mixture for 15 minutes. In a bowl, whip the curd till creamy. Add the remaining ingredients and mix. Take fish pieces out of the first marinade and dip them in the curd mixture. Keep for 20 minutes. On a steel plate, place the fish pieces and cover with banana leaves. Place in the steamer for eight to 10 minutes or until cooked. Remove and set on a service dish. Serve hot.
Iceberg lettuce 50g
Gondhoraj lime and rind 2
Sugar to taste
White pepper powder 5g
Mustard powder 5g
Salad oil 20ml
Wash and peel the cucumber. Cut the capsicum, cucumber and tomato into small dices. Cut the iceberg lettuce. Grate the gondhoraj lemon and retain the rind. Squeeze the gondhoraj lemon and set aside the juice.
Prepare the dressing by mixing the gondhoraj juice, rind, salt, sugar, white pepper powder, mustard powder and salad oil.
Put the vegetables in a bowl and pour the dressing over them. Mix well and serve.