Travels with Guavas

by Kaveri Ponnapa

Just how two friendly guava trees came to be in my grandparents’ backyard in Coorg, I am not sure –they were a very long way from Mexico, Central and South America, where the species originally grew. Chances are those two trees traced their history back to guava plants that arrived in the hold of a Portuguese ship that docked at a port in Malabar, from where they worked their way up to the hills of Coorg. These are just thoughts, but at any rate, the guava, Psidium guajava, was well established in India by the 17th century, transported by the Portuguese from the New World. While we were growing up, guava trees –both wild and hybrid –were widely scattered across the Coorg countryside, a familiar sight, prolific, hardy and taken for granted, very much a part of the landscape.

Our very own trees –that’s how we thought of them, and it is a great luxury to have your own trees –were beautiful to climb, with a smooth, silky bark, and peeling patches here and there. You could easily while away half a day tangled up in the branches and tough leaves, looking out for a hard, rough skinned green fruit to munch on, all the while trying to avoid being bitten by fierce armies of translucent red ants that always marched angrily up and down the limbs of the tree, standing out against the pale greyish bark.

For a sweet-scented, ripe, fruit, you had to search much harder, because the birds usually got to it before anyone else and left untidily eaten, unattractive remains hanging on the tree. Green guavas were crunchy and refreshing, with a slightly sharp taste and quantities of hard, unforgiving seeds. They were usually plucked a little before they ripened, stored in baskets and consumed quickly, with generous pinches of salt and chili powder. They had a habit of ripening abruptly, rapidly, sending waves of thick, sweet fragrance into the air that could turn cloying all too soon. When you were tired of too much fresh fruit, guava shells stewed with cinnamon and cloves, without those terrible seeds, made a delicious dessert: fragrant, smooth, quickly and easily cooked. And then there was guava jelly.

With time and patience, you can draw out the essence from the whole fruit, skin, seeds and all, into a juice. Slow cooked, the juice made with this ordinary fruit that we find in such abundance, arranged in intricate heaps like acrobats in a circus, on roadside carts, gives a clear, garnet coloured jelly, a bottled treat to be stashed away until the next season, about half a year away, if it lasts that long. We ate it with akki ottis or dosas and fresh butter and spread it over huge, soft slices of locally baked bread at breakfast, dipping happily into its concentrated sweetness.

The intense sweetness of the guava begs for a foil, and I often end up throwing in a few perfectly red bird’s eye chillies, travelling companions of the guava from the same side of the world, that hang suspended in the jelly, slowly spreading their heat through the sweetness. Some kind of a throwback to eating ripe guavas dipped in chili powder?

The left over pulp from the jelly can be cooked into an opaque, dense, sweet cheese, typical of Coorg homes, always, in my memory at least, placed against intricately cut patterns on pressed glass plates and served up to visitors. Guava cheese was at one time familiar enough to induce boredom; but now I look forward eagerly to eating a few of those soft cubes whenever they come my way. It’s a wonder how a fruit that never was ours –to begin with –is now so firmly fixed in our experience that its flavours can evoke home from halfway across the world. Recently, while travelling in Colombia, one of the biggest producers of guava, I unwrapped a small, rectangular slab of candy that a wonderful woman I know had packed for me to enjoy on my journey. One bite, and a whiff of that unmistakable, sweet fragrance sent my senses spiraling back to Coorg –it was the same guava treat that we still offer our guests. As for that jelly, it’s a small part of another world, one that I still inhabit.

Photo Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa

Thank you for visiting this page. If you read something that you enjoy, or see an image that you like, please take a moment to write a response. Do look out for the recipes of all the food featured here in my upcoming cookbook.

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