This summer's wondrous fruits: From cempedak to santol
While the exotica bug has truly bitten the fruit world, celebrity nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar says nutritional benefits lie with native, local fruits.
Jose Jacob’s farm is a veritable garden of exotic plants. He cultivates over 32 varieties, including pulasan, santol and abiu. This is a summer of unusual fruits — either farmed in or imported to India — making their way to supermarkets and salad platters.
It was in 2007 that Jacob began to cultivate exotic fruits with his brother Renny Jacob and cousin Jojo Jacob. Today their company Homegrown Biotech has a nursery spread across 70 acres. “Kerala’s agriculture was dominated by cash crops. The transition to fruit farming is slowly happening now. The state has the potential to become the tropical fruit basket of the country,” says Jacob.
In Kerala, farmers are quick to latch on to what they believe would be the next big lucrative produce. They have tried growing cocoa and vanilla and now rambutan is piled high along the highways. Shaji Kochukudi, a rubber planter in Thodupuzha in Idukki, is now cultivating fruits in a big way. He started with mangosteen and is currently producing 5,000 kilo of the fruit annually. He planted rambutan three years ago and now harvests 6,000-7,000 kilos a year. He has also started growing durian as well as cempedak, a smaller and sweeter version of the ubiquitous jack fruit, and longan. He hopes to get good crops from these trees in a couple of years. Durian is a high-yield fruit and could fetch between Rs 700 and Rs 1,000 a kilo. Kochukudi sells his produce under the brand name FruitWagon. “I have some tie-ups with local malls and have recently acquired space in Kochi Metro stations where we will launch our fruit carts,” he says. So far, his produce hasn’t travelled outside Kerala.
While the exotica bug has truly bitten the fruit world, celebrity nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar says nutritional benefits lie with native, local fruits. She says the best fruits are “the ones that don’t have to travel long to land on your plate, that don’t come covered in foam or plastic, and the ones that are an inherent part of the food culture and ecosystem”.
It is not just Malayalis who are betting on unusual berries. The almost century-old Soans Farm near Mangaluru in Karnataka grows rambutan, mangosteen, egg fruit, breadfruit, rose apple, star apple and miracle fruit. While much of the produce is sold locally, a tie-up with Gurgaon-based online platform Farmer Uncle helps it to sell fruits to customers in Delhi-NCR. “We have a great interest in botanical species and grow over 1,000 on our farm,” says Irwin V Soans, a fruit technologist, who runs the farm.
There has been a growing interest in tropical fruit among health-conscious, young Indians, especially in the metros. “Many of the exotic tropical fruits are believed to have a lot of health benefits and there has been an increasing demand for them. Also, most of them look very appealing and have a unique taste. Hence, people who try them once want to have them again,” says Jay Jhaveri, COO of Foodhall, the premium lifestyle retail chain of the Future Group. He adds that expats and well-travelled Indians love to have these fruits. Foodhall has on offer a wide range of them. There is a Thai range that includes rambutan, loquat, durian, snake fruit, mangosteen and three variants of dragon fruit (red, white and yellow). It also sells guanabana, cherimoya, horned cucumber, prickly pear and quince.
These have premium prices, with rambutan imported from Thailand flying off the shelves at Rs 800 a kilo. Foodhall, which has outlets in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, has witnessed a consistent growth in demand for such rare and exotic fruits, selling about 2 tonnes a month.
While rose apple trees, locally known as chambakka, grow uncared for in Kerala, a bright red variant of the fruit is imported from Thailand and is sold at Rs 750 a kilo at Foodhall. Fresh fruit imports to India are pegged at 4,00,000 tonnes annually and valued at roughly Rs 4,000 crore, according to customs data. “A lot of the fruits are imported from Thailand. Different kinds of berries come from Europe. These fruits are high in antioxidants, and consumers in metros are willing to pay a premium for them,” says Tarun Arora, director, finance and operations, IG International, one of the largest fruit importers in India.
The bright pink dragon fruit, with a scaly outer cover and white or red flesh inside speckled with tiny blacks seeds, is an obvious favourite for salads and decoration. It is also high in nutrition and anti-oxidants. When Vishal Gada, Kalpesh Hariya and Sagar Thakkar started farming in Bhuj in Gujarat in 2014, they chose dragon fruit because it belongs to the cactus family and requires less water. Today their farm Auroch Agro has dragon fruit plantation across 15 acres. “We have our own label Maisha and are tying up with retail chains so that our produce can be marketed outside Gujarat,” says Gada. The red dragon fruit sells at Rs 600-800 per kg in wholesale markets.
For many top chefs in India, summer is the season to create colourful desserts with tropical fruits. “Some fruits like rambutan look very good in desserts while others like passion fruit add an edge to sorbets,” says Gordon Galea, pastry chef at Andaz, Delhi. It’s going to be a berry unusual summer.