A Fruity Journey to Get Under the Skin of Things

“Explore the depths, don’t stay at the surface.”

A couple of years ago, I found myself walking down a residential street in the suburbs of south Kolkata. It was a street I knew well, a quiet one away from the rush of the main road.

By mid-morning the sun had begun to heat the road into a dusty shimmer, a bicycle rickshaw drunkenly limped past, its horn quacking sharply as the driver squeezed the modified water bottle strapped to his handlebars — a neat symbol of the city’s makeshift genius.

After five minutes, I reached my destination: a place of daily pilgrimage for my elderly landlord, Mr. Das — a place shifting with minute changes each day, and more dramatically through the seasons. My eyes were drawn everywhere at once, sounds crowded the air and a swarm of smells rushed forward in olfactory assault. This hallowed ground of daily life was nothing other than my local market, and I was there for my weekly shop.

Spiny gourd.

The first time I came to this market, Mr. Das showed me around personally. Taking an age to reach the place, I spent most of the journey naively fearing for his life as he wobbled over the uneven ground, narrowly missing jostling vehicles in the ceaseless stream of passing traffic. Das strode into this playground with the air of a statesman surveying his empire. With ceremony, he proudly introduced me to his most trusted traders.

We weaved between rows of seemingly identical stores, each one a little wooden-framed theatre, roofed with tarpaulin, overflowing with vibrant displays of produce in neat rows and stacks. Periodically, Das would pause, furrow his brow and furtively disclose his closely-guarded trade secrets, ‘this is the best brinjal’, ‘never buy milk here’, ‘come early for shrimp.’

After that first tour I was on my own. As the weeks went by, I ended up finding my own favourite stalls, deviating from Das’ officially sanctioned list. Ultimately, I ended up befriending one stall owner in particular — Babu Das — who I returned to week after week with exclusive loyalty.

My visits to his stall were akin to those nostalgic films where a young boy is sent to the newsagent by his parents. After identifying all the items that I wished to purchase in a mix of mangled Bengali and pointing, Babu would put my vegetables to one side as if he’d had enough of the dirty work of business. Almost without fail, he would then pick up a large pea pod and prize apart the flesh, dropping a handful of crisp little peas into my hand to munch down like sweets.

White grapes.

As our familiarity deepened, in a moment of extravagance, he would occasionally slice a cucumber and toss the segments into a bag with some salt, chilli, coriander, and doused in lemon juice. Once, as a special treat, he made me a surprise bag with green mango he freshly chopped up, adding in chilli, coriander and mustard sauce. My tastebuds nearly exploded with the eye-watering tang of the green mango and the rocketing heat of the little Bird’s Eye chillies.

Dried red chilli.

The months passed and as the shock of the strange wore off, I realised that I’d begun to build a life focused around familiarity and comfort once more. It had begun with finding Babu and had spread out to a number of areas of our life. We’d found our favourite places to hang out, knew our way around the transport system of the city and figured out how to get wifi. All that initial curiosity and openness had been replaced with the usual craving for safety and ease.

I decided that I needed to break out of this somehow. And just like that, one fine spring morning, a path presented itself as I was mulling over a mound of tomatoes at Babu’s stall.

Above: Tomato. Below: Yam.

Beyond the glossy tomato pyramids and between the carrots and the onions, the papery piles of garlic and dangling strings of bananas hung from the rough-hewn wooden struts, were other things: strange fruits and curious vegetables outside the realms of my knowing.

Round bottle gourd (calabash).

I’d never seen anything like some of the bizarre specimens before me. Items both tempting and terrifying, with carbuncles and spikes. Fruit which looked like a squashed pear, skinned and coated in varnish. Vague potatoey-looking objects, all generic and brown; their flakey mottled exteriors revealing nothing about what lay inside.

Sweet potato.

Although I’d noticed these little food aliens before, I’d taken a wide berth, choosing to purchase and consume the things I knew in what was already a very different environment to the sanitised corridors of the Western supermarket. And it struck me, the way that I’d steered clear of these odd-looking foods mirrored how we live. We notice things and people that are different, but most of the time we keep our distance.

So, in that moment, I grabbed up a handful of fruits and vegetables that I knew nothing about, as well as a few more familiar ones to act as anchors to the known-world, took them home and set about getting to know them.

Moringa pod (drumstick).

Setting up a makeshift studio in our flat I began to examine these weird delicacies. I pored over the texture and details of each fruit and vegetable’s skin, husk and peel, noticing how the light danced over their contours — reflecting, absorbing, casting strange shadows and revealing vibrant colours and dusky hues. I felt like a cartographer, studying the face of an undiscovered moon. But to get deeper, I had to become an archaeologist.

Or perhaps a surgeon is a better comparison. Taking up my kitchen knife, I bisected each object at its most obvious point, revealing a world of hidden secrets. Cutting through the solid outer walls and fragile paper-thin peels revealed not only sumptuous new flesh tones, but also released exciting smells, revealing chambers and seeds. The sci-fi architecture of a bobbled papaya grotto. The insidious oozing of the jackfruit. The surprise tangerine glow of the turmeric root.

Turmeric root.

In the course of my investigations, I would find out the striking difference between the interior life of a ripe bitter gourd and a green one — a dazzling reflection of the more subtle changes taking place on the carbuncled surface. I reeled at the sour deadness of a coconut left a little too long. Caught up in this spirit of discovery, I tried to find out all I could about each specimen on my operating table, texting pictures to friends and asking locals to name these obscure fruits for me.

Bitter gourds, green and ripe.

Through the process of smelling, dissecting, photographing, cooking and tasting, I began to get under their skin a little more. My enquiries didn’t necessarily render all these strange items familiar, in fact, in some cases the mystery and otherness only deepened. But through this fruity process, I overcame some prejudices (the wax apple was exquisite), and confirmed some fears (my stew of various bitter gourds made for an acerbic evening). I realised too, that sometimes it wasn’t worth the fight (the cannonball-like wood apple should be used in game or battle, but not at the table).

Snake gourd.
Wood apple (bel fruit).
Water apple / wax apple [Syzygium samarangense].

Ultimately, through these small discoveries, my little journey of wonder delivered just the moral I’d been after: explore the depths, don’t stay at the surface.

Tamarind, without shell.
Ripe ivy gourd.
Indian gooseberry (amla).
Nimbu [Citrus limettioides].
Green mango.
Green pepper.
Green chilli.
Green papaya.
Sweet lime.
Red onion.

Disclaimer: Captions depict the common name (or the only name I found), latin names (if known) in square brackets, local names in round brackets. I may have got some of these names wrong.

Addendum: Since publishing this piece under the original title of ‘Strange Fruit’ I’ve learned about the negative connotations of this phrase (something that I was not familiar with). As it was not my intention to make any links to this, I have subsequently changed the title.

To stay in touch with me, sign up for my newsletter.

… part two.