Sumaiya Mustafa, a chronicler of the coastal town’s culinary heritage, talks about how ice apples and the sap from the palms that bear it shapes lives and livelihoods.
Indian summers are splashed with mangoes. Or that’s what most stories say. But in Sumaiya Mustafa’s coastal hometown of Kayalpatnam, Tamil Nadu, summers are all about ice apples, and the sap of the palmyra that bear them.
When she was younger, Sumaiya—a keen chronicler of Kayalpatnam’s culinary heritage—took many sap-based delicacies for granted. Neera (sap) delights are so entwined in childhood memories, she didn’t realise how much of her food culture it formed.
“Every summer, around March, my Mooma (grandmother) would fill up boxes with the puttu that she bought from a woman at her doorstep,” she recalls. Puttu, or sil karupatti, is made by boiling palmyra sap—neera or padaneer—until it solidifies. And while this sweet is found across her home state, Sumaiya says most other sweets and snacks that use the hardened palm sugar, karupatti, are rare treats to friends visiting her from out of town.
“It’s a culinary surprise, food that they tell me they haven’t tried before,” she elaborates. “The fact that this is so hyperlocal makes me want to shout about it all the more.” As a grown up who no longer runs to Mooma for treats, Sumaiya, too, has come to realise how much she loves these foods.
As we speak, she awaits her summer—one of nungu, neera, and everything else that comes with it. In a month or two, sap catchers will frequent the town. It is thanks to them that the townsfolk can indulge in neera, the fresh sap, or panangai, its fruit, with nungu or ice apples hidden within. Typically, each panangai yields three or four nungus, fleshy seeds of the palmyra. Ice apples begin to appear a month two after neera does.
As someone studying the food cultures along the coast of the Indian Ocean, Sumaiya has always believed that the role of people who bring nungu, neera, and sap-made sweets to her, and several others along the coast and deeper inland, is central to the culinary tale she seeks to tell.
In less than a month, sap catchers will travel to this little-known coastal town from as far as Kanyakumari and Rameswaram, about four hours down south, right at the tip of the mainland. They will scale the palms, at great personal risk (harnesses aren’t always accessible to those who need it) to bring these offerings down for their fellow humans.
“I climb up and down the palms about 25 times a day,” says Sarath, who’s from the Kanyakumari district. “I pay Rs 6,000 for three months as lease to plantation owners during the season.”
With so much to recover, and two toddlers to raise, he doesn’t see slowing down to consider an alternative profession as a choice. Armugam, who takes plantations on lease for six months for Rs 10,000, is proud of his stamina. “Point to a palm, and I’ll climb it for you. I’m the best-known tapper around here for evening padaneer, and not a drop of water goes into it. Absolutely no adulteration.”
Much thirst-quenching padaneer is consumed fresh during the sweltering coastal summer. The rest, however, goes into the kitchens of women like Muthulakshmi and Selvi to be made into puttu, karupatti, and other sweets.
‘No Watlappam, No Eid’
With Ramzan coming up in April, and Eid about a month later, these foods take on all the more significance. Unlike in many other Muslim communities in India, Sumaiya and many other Tamil-speaking Muslims along the coast have their celebratory feast for breakfast. Watlappam, a sweet that uses puttu or karupatti, both sweeteners made by boiling the sap, is a centrepiece of the festive spread.
If Sumaiya has grown fonder of nungu, padaneer, and puttu over the years, she has also become better acquainted with the people who make it accessible for her and the rest of her town. And, having documented this process, from tree to town, she can’t help but wish the livelihoods of those involved were infused with some of the sweets they offer.
*All research and inputs have been provided by Sumaiya Mustafa.
Sumaiya is a chronicler of the culinary heritage and everyday life of her hometown, Kayalpatnam—a Tamil Muslim town in coastal Tamil Nadu. She is an enthusiast of the Indian Ocean world and writes stories that intrigue her.