Friday, May 10, 2013

Finding mulberries (shahtoot) in Delhi

I heard that mulberries were being sold in the city, and so I asked my colleague Gaurav if he had seen any. Thus began Gaurav's hunt for shahtoot :) It took him all over the city, but finally he found this young boy selling mulberries in Old Delhi. 

There was no shortage of buyers. First there was a man in a white shirt.

And then a boy with his father on a scooter.

The sweet lure of shahtoot drew everyone to it. Shahtoot. What an interesting name, shah originating from the Farsi word for emperor, and toot meaning berries. The King's Berries. It is pronounced sheh, not shah, actually. Typically the fruits start to develop in April, and are seen in the markets up to May. 

The mulberry tree is originally from China, but it has grown in India for so long that it has become naturalised.  There are two types of mulberry usually found in Delhi - morus alba (white) and morus australis (darker berries). But the so called "white" mulberry tree produces fruits of all colours, ranging from pale yellow to very dark purple, so it's difficult to tell the two sub-species apart.
This batch of mulberries has all kinds of shades, but they
are all from the same white mulberry tree
In fact, other variants, like morus nigra (black mulberry) and morus serrata (Himalayan mulberry) are probably here somewhere as well, quietly growing in some part of the city. But the fact that the white mulberry produces such a diverse range of fruit colours means that these other types are hard to identify when you see the fruits in the market.

Mulberry Tree growing in Sarai Kale Khan
Silkworms have been reared on the white mulberry tree in China for silk since antiquity. In Japan also, where silk is made from the mulberry tree, there are over 700 recognised varieties of white mulberry.

In India, the silk that we see in the market is primarily sourced through silkworms reared on mulberry trees. The major mulberry silk producing states are Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Jammu-Kashmir. These states together account for 92 % of country's total mulberry raw silk production. There are about 6 million workers in the silk production process, of which 60% are women.

A couple of years ago, I went to a weaver's house in Kanchipuram, in Tamil Nadu. They were a family of traditional weavers, and like all traditional establishments, it was a cottage industry with everyone in the family involved in the many activities. I saw silk thread (uncoloured) and also the thread coloring and weaving process.
Uncoloured silk thread. This is the raw material
which they purchase from silk suppliers 

(it comes from silkworms bred on mulberry leaves).
The weaver's family dyes the thread, and winds it into wooden spools.
Mostly this activity is done by women, and it is interspersed with
other household work like cooking and cleaning
The thread is placed on the loom as per the design (which is defined 
through a complicated pattern of vertical threads and knots).
It is then woven into cloth. The whole thing is a slow process, 

and the end result is a shining silk saree.
When you see the mulberry tree, it's difficult to imagine that such a beautiful glossy thread can come from it. But the process of rearing silkworms, and getting the silk from it, is far from beautiful.
There's an outstanding step-by-step set of photos here, if you'd like to see it. Very time-consuming, and  labour-intensive. And yes, for those of you who are squeamish, they do boil the cocoons to kill the chrysalis.

Apart from being used for rearing silkworms, the mulberry tree has many other uses. In rural areas, the bark of the tree is used to weave baskets. You can make a cool sherbet for summer. Nirulas in Delhi also sells mulberry jam. In the Unani medicine system, mulberries are popularly used for sore throats, and also as a cure for melancholia. Some scientific studies show that mulberry extract has "has anti–inflammatory, exudative, proliferative and anti-pyretic activities".

Next time you see shahtoot being sold, buy some and try making sherbet from it. Here's my version:

  • Buy 200 gms of mulberries, wash and clean it and pat it dry
  • Remove stems
  • Add approximately same amount of sugar, blitz in your mixer
  • Taste and see if it is super-sweet.
  • Add juice of 1 lemon or half a lemon, depending on how you want it
  • Strain the juice
  • Serve with ice, garnished with mint
This is a fresh juice, which you should ideally consume the same day. Enjoy :)