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The goodness of lapsi

The goodness of lapsi

The discovery of ‘lapsi’, the Nepali hog plum, in a New York superstore left me pleasantly surprised. As I held one in my hand and inhaled its sweet aroma, a rush of memories from my childhood and youth flooded my mind. Clutching onto the lapsi felt like reuniting with a dear old friend, bringing tears of pride to my eyes.

Perhaps they were tears of nostalgia, flowing from the depths of my heart. In that special moment, I felt an unmistakable bond with lapsi, (Choerospondias axillaris), as if it were meant to be mine. With a sense of pride, I strolled through the streets of New York, humming along to Kumar Basnet’s melody, ‘Lapsi ko gedo chusera, jyamir nibuwa sadhera, patpat jibro patkaudai.’

Scientists say that lapsi is indigenous to the hills of Nepal and can also be found in the hills of India (Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam), Bhutan, Thailand, Vietnam, and China. Known as Lepchipoma in Assamese, Amrda in Bengali, and Nansuanzao in Mandarin, which translates to ‘southern sour date,’ lapsi carries a rich cultural heritage

Lapsi originates from a sizable tree reaching a height of approximately 25 meters, bearing small, yellow, fleshy fruits abundant in calcium, protein, and sucrose. The tree is dioecious, hosting both male and female species, posing a challenge for wild fruit harvesting. However, through grafting techniques, the trees can be controlled for smaller sizes and enhanced fruit yield.

During the onset of spring, the lapsi tree adorns itself with delicate, light-greenish blossoms, soon accompanied by tiny oval fruits measuring around two to three centimeters in diameter. Upon ripening, these fruits transition to a vibrant yellow or red hue, boasting a distinctive sour, tart flavor. Laden with essential nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin A, and dietary fiber, lapsi offers numerous health benefits. It’s celebrated for its antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties.

While ripe lapsi fruits are intensely sour due to their high vitamin C content, few enjoy their pleasant tartness, either fresh or as ingredients for sweet and salty dried fruit nuggets. Although separating the pulp from the seeds can prove to be challenging, cooking facilitates this process. Encased within a hard rubbery skin, the fruits harbor a pale-yellow flesh firmly attached to a large brown seed.

Despite its nutritional prowess, lapsi’s utilization has predominantly remained localized, as noted by many food scientists. Nevertheless, lapsi’s economic significance is on the rise, with its fruit serving multiple purposes. The pulp is transformed into pickles, candies, and spicy delicacies, while the peel can be powdered, and the seeds find diverse applications, from ointments to fire starters. Ripe lapsi fruits present opportunities for both local consumption and international export.

Harvesting occurs as the fruits turn yellow, typically between December and September, allowing farmers to cater to market demands or process them into tantalizing pickles and candies. Furthermore, the dried skin finds utility as fruit leather (paun) or a souring agent for cooking.

Among Nepal’s culinary delights, lapsi ko achar stands out as a favorite pickle. This rich brown, gooey concoction boasts a tantalizing blend of sweetness, spiciness, and tanginess. Although each family has its unique recipe, the process typically involves boiling the lapsi fruit until tender, preserving both pulp and seed integrity.

Subsequently, the peeled fruit undergoes cooking with oil and an array of spices, including sugar, fenugreek seeds, dried chilies, turmeric, cinnamon, ground cardamom, fennel seeds, and chopped dried fruit. Once cooled, the pickle is packed in jars and it can maintain its flavor for up to a year at room temperature.

Beyond its culinary applications, lapsi boasts diverse qualities. Rich in vitamin C, the fruit is integral to various traditional medical practices. Moreover, its hard oval seeds serve as fire starters in rural kitchens or as playthings for children.

In recent years, lapsi has gained popularity as a commercial commodity, gracing the shelves of retail and department stores nationwide. With traditional methods gradually giving way to mass production, lapsi delicacies are now available in convenient mason jars, masquerading as homemade pickles.

In Nepali cuisine, lapsi serves as a quintessential souring agent, enhancing a myriad of dishes, from classic curries to momo chutney and soups. Its versatility and unique tang contribute significantly to Nepali culinary heritage.

Lapsi’s applications extend beyond its delectable pulp, encompassing the peel, seeds, and even natural food preservation techniques through sun-drying. Much like sumac and mango powder in other cultures, lapsi imparts a tangy essence to Nepali cuisine, bridging culinary traditions across borders.

For those traversing markets far from the hills of Nepal, encountering lapsi evokes cherished recollections of childhood games and familial feasts, symbolizing a tapestry woven from the threads of home, tradition, and culinary innovation.

The author is a UK based R&D chef