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Ruminations on citrus 🍊 + a fruity poem
Last night, I struggled to peel an unbelievably thick-skinned mandarin. I imagined peeling an orange was always a gentle undertaking—careful, precise, and calming. Unfortunately, it turned into a violent process. Instead of long orange ribbons, all I managed were tiny patches of peel stuck together with the juicy flesh, my nails digging in like a determined garden squirrel. Every time I peel an orange, I try to remember the last time I peeled one. And before that, and so on—hoping, expecting, and waiting for the segments to reveal themselves.
At first, I was mad. But soon enough, the oils and juices from the fruit perfumed my fingers and my clothes, then my lips, face, and my room. As I popped the segments into my mouth, I couldn’t help holding up my fingers to my nose and frequently smelling them, and then joyfully crushing the orange pieces between my teeth, cold juice gushing out with urgency. For May’s horrendous weather, it felt like air conditioning for the mouth.
How—and why—I came across these mandarins is a story in itself. Our local fruit seller had a box full of tiny mandarin oranges in his cart, lumped with seasonal favourites like fragrant mangoes, stubby watermelons, bristly pineapples, thin-skinned guavas, along with (what seems like) infinite bananas. I picked five, one for each day of the week, leaving two days for mangoes and pineapples. Amma and I asked him about blueberries (sometimes imported from Peru or Chile, which are becoming a regular fixture at local fruit vendors’) and strawberries (from Nilgiris district), and if they were ‘in season’. He leant close and remarked, “Truth be told, I’m only selling what my Dubai customers in the neighbourhood ask for. They were abroad for a month and are now back, and they asked for imampasand [mangoes], lychees, tiny mandarins, and guavas. Rest of the fruits are here by coincidence.”
We didn’t ask further, only thankful to be taken into confidence, and, of course, for the abundance of fruits that were to come our way. “Next week, expect mangosteen, more imampasand and malgova, and fresher lychees. If you come before 10am, you’ll have a chance at picking fresh, ripe fruits,” he chided us indirectly, for buying fruits at 7pm.
I vaguely remember the last time I was taken into confidence by someone who’s neither a stranger nor a friend. Once, at a market in London, sometime in 2019, I looked hungrily at the punnets of raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries—fruits that were new to me—on display. The seller, who noticed me hovering, beckoned me close and offered them at a price much lower than advertised on his fraying blackboard. Ever a sceptic, I shook my head no and moved away thinking he was having a laugh. Instead, he laughed, called me closer, and said, “We’re gonna close up soon and I want to sell this. You can have it for less than advertised.”
When I think about it further, fruits are indeed messy business. My sister, as a child, used to hate those stringy bitsthat clung onto bananas and, as a result, one’s fingers. I used to hate the strands on oranges, and especially parts of the pith on சாத்துக்குடி/musambis/sweet limes that remained even after a deft peeling of the skin, usually performed by my mother. It is true what they say, that peeling and cutting fruit for someone is a symbol of love. Juicy mangoes and luscious peaches are an over-the-sink affair while disembowelling a jackfruit or a pineapple calls for both brute force and acquired skill. Pomegranates are usually whacked on their heads, seeds staining everything pink-red in their parabolic paths. Mandarin oranges are delicate and ask for nimble peeling, but the indigenous citron isn’t, which is perhaps why its leathery rind joins the pulp in pickling.
For a long time, I’ve wondered if the wrinkled skin narthangai, aka citron, lent its name to the orange fruit. The latter, a hybrid of pomelo and mandarin, which originates somewhere in the region that spans Northeast India and Southern China, derives its name from the Sanskrit naranga that in turn procures it from the Tamil root naarathai. Besides, I’m also curious about two other words that derive from this root—naaram and naru. Both of which mean smell, but the difference is in context. Presumably, the pleasant smelling orange is associated with the Tamil word narumanam aka fragrance, which stems from naru. And nattram, from naaram, which earlier meant smell, now denotes stink (more precisely, துர்நாற்றம்).
My friend Susanna, who kindly edited this newsletter, remarked that I must have a face fruit sellers trust, especially since “two fruit vendors in different parts of the world chose to confide in you [lol]”. She ventured further to say that I have a" “pazham face”. Pazham(பழம்) is the Tamil word for fruit, but it is also slang for someone who is stupid or innocent or old, depending on the context. I didn’t verify any further, because she clarified that it was a fruit joke. Plus, what’s the point of being good friends if you can’t take a joke once in a while?
Maybe those fruit sellers confided in me because I tend to buy a lot of fruits at once. Can you ever have too many fruits? (No.) Citrus, and fruits itself, are all about abundance. Have you noticed how fruit stalls are usually tetris-stacked to the top, carts creaking under their weight. Fruits are bountiful in their (outward) existence, at their core, and all around; fruits are meant to be shared, oranges especially with their kidneyesque fragments. I love how the pulp, or rather the individual segments of certain fruits, is called in Tamil, as suLai (சுளை). Colloquially, if one were to obtain a bounty of anything, we say “suLaya kidaithadhu”. Because if fruits don’t signify abundance, what does?
florally sweet guavas with fat flecks of black pepper;
sharp wedges of green mango, eaten with chilli-salt — pungent.
puckering from a tiny sliver of gooseberry on my tongue,
chills and shivers down my spine. thatha always said
drink water after: sweetness is unparalleled,
and patience is worth it. sour, sweet, or bitter,
the fruits of labour are in their savouring.
sour, sweet, or bitter, the fruits of love and longing
herald a new beginning.
One of my favourite Nina Mingya Powles essay on oranges and orange skin.
The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo.
Who doesn’t love a good pineapple essay, on the history of the fruit that became a status symbol in the 16-17th centuries.
Bitter oranges, a brilliant essay in Feminist Food Journal, on belonging, heritage, and migration. Subscribe to them!
Edited to add a link.
They’re called phloem bundles—which sounds very much like the name of an indie band struggling to get their first hit—and they deliver nutrients to the fruit.
The salted narthangai pickle is like the savoury version of fruit leather, where slices of citron with pulp are salted and left to dry for years. They’re excellent if you want to stop nausea in its tracks, with yogurt and rice, or just as a salty snack.
The University of Madras Tamil Lexicon denotes the noun ‘naraa’ as both odour and fragrance.
Literally translates to bad smell
‘zh’ in Tamil is a retroflex approximant; alternatively is pronounced with a an L sound.
Miron Winslow’s Tamil to English lexicon also uses a version of the word to describe one “who artfully embezzles leaving no marks”. I guess after you eat the fruit, all that’s left are the seeds (that is disposed off) and the oozing juices (that are licked/wiped clean).