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A childhood among Malay Gooseberries


Amla or gooseberries are generally quite tart and pretty astringent. Have one bite and its effects could last for at least a few minutes. And yet, don’t we all enjoy a blast of that tartness in our mouths every once in a while?

In my school, art and craft classes were quite a norm till the very senior years. We would have these art and craft classes twice a week, I think. I don’t know how much of artistic and crafty pleasures we actually indulged in during those classes, we mostly did pretty random stuff, or were the teacher’s minions doing menial tasks like getting hands dirty in the clay or pouring POP from the bucket (my teacher would call it battak, and that is still quite a joke for us who studied in that school) or just while away our time in the garden behind the art and craft rooms. A separate block on the school grounds was allocated entirely to the art-craft-music trinity. Behind the block was quite a greenery – tall walls and even taller trees. There were neem trees and gulmohar trees, and then there were the joy of those times – the malay gooseberry tree or the desi amla tree or as we kids would call it – amla trees.

Women are generally pretty disadvantaged when it comes to being blessed with pockets in their clothes, I almost always wonder why the designers take it for a given that us women have no phones, no keys, no money, nothing to keep in those pockets, not even a spare tampon for emergencies and back-ups. We’ll leave my rant aside and just focus on the fact that our uniform skirts had only one pocket. And while we did not have phones and money to store in that pocket then, we definitely would hoard the amla in it. A leisurely craft or art class would have some of us sneaking out picking the fallen gooseberries and stashing it in our pocket to enjoy later during the day or secretly sucking on them during class trying our best not to let the teachers notice our cheap thrills. At the end of the day, while going home, if you weren’t too greedy and someone didn’t try to steal away your stash (o boy, the fights that would happen!), you might still have some left that you would enjoy while walking to the school gate and onwards to home or a waiting scooter or car or your cycle. However, sometimes, as luck would have it, you might be preoccupied and forget about those few final gooseberries lying in anticipation in your pocket, waiting to be consumed. Or you might entangled in some very deep conversation about some completely fake rumor your friend heard, or like me, try to show everyone that I was cool too by trying to participate in the conversation other girls were having about the latest soap opera that I actually had no idea about. Well, you want to fit in, you don’t want to be made fun of, but you end up doing quite the opposite most times, and you somehow never make it to the cool crowd. But you still have the amlas, right? And then, you reach home, put your clothes away in the laundry basket so mom can wash it up next day. she doesn’t know about your secret amla stash, and you conveniently forgot all about it. So, God bless you the next day, you know what I mean.

What days….

What are Malay Gooseberries?

Malay gooseberries or Phyllanthus acidus is a tree with small edible green to yellow berries. It is also known as Otaheite gooseberry, Tahitian gooseberry, country gooseberry, star gooseberry, star berry, arbari, West India gooseberry, desi amla, etc. However, surprise surprise, the plant does not resemble a gooseberry, except its tartness and sourness. It is believed that the species originated in Madagascar and spread across the world from there. In India, we call it nallikai in Kannada, arainellikai in Tamil, narakoli in Odisha, nora or noyal or orboroi in West Bengal, seema usirikaya in Telugu, harpharori, jimnbling or charmeri in Marathi, harfarauri in Hindu and Urdu, gihori in Manipuri, rajamvali in Konkani, among other names. Unlike the regular gooseberry tree, the Malay gooseberry tree does not have tiny leaves growing in a straight line on the branches. Also, most of these trees bear fruit all through the year.

The Malay gooseberries are generally eaten raw (like my school story), or they can be cooked, pickled, or made into a murabba. It can be juiced or made into sherbets. The leaves of the Malay gooseberry tree are also often cooked and eaten. The berries are said to improve eyesight and memory (no wonder, considering I ate them by the handfuls and was a master hoarder). They are also used for helping cure cough, psoriasis, skin disorders, rheumatism, bronchitis, asthma, respiratory disorders, hepatic diseases, and even gonorrhea and diabetes.

The berries contain quite a tough stone, and like Sri Devi uses apple seeds to poison one of the antagonists in the movie Mom, the stone of the Malay gooseberry can also be poisonous. And bite too hard, it could, I don’t know, break your teeth, maybe? I never tried, but that is a very real possibility, you know.

How to store the Malay gooseberries?

My question to whoever is asking this question is why do you want to store them? Eat them right away, please. If you still need to store them, if you managed to get your hands on a gigantic stash or there’s only so much sour you can take in a day, then keeping them outside in a container (not air-tight, let the berries breathe), would be fine for a day or two. Then they need to move to an air-tight container or bag and go into a refrigerator. And if you got a stash big enough to last you through the year, freeze it. Send some my way too for giving you free advice.

How to use the Malay gooseberries?

My best recommendation – pop them in your mouth, eat the flesh, spit out the stone, or add a little salt and chili powder or my new obsession – the chora pisyun-lun and then enjoy it. But if you are can’t accept the basics and are more experimental than that, then well, here’s some suggestions for you –

  1. Make chutneys from these star gooseberries as the prime souring agent
  2. Slice the fruit and soak it into sugar water overnight, then use the fruit to make cold beverages like sherbets
  3. Make jams with them
  4. Add a dash of tartness to curries and sauces
  5. Make it into delicious pickles

Do you have any memories with the star gooseberries or Malay gooseberries? Tell me in the comments below or find me on Instagram – @banjaranfoodie.

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