Summer Cooler On The Coldest Day of Winter

Relish Tad-Gola: Mumbai’s Favourite & Learn About The Amazing Toddy Palm

Today was a cold day by Mumbai standards.  The mercury had dipped to 16 C in the morning, and combined with wind, and the weather was extreme for our tropical city.  I almost decided not to take a walk but did finally go out in the morning wearing a light jacket.

Around noon I was out at Thane and, while returning home via the Saket-Balkum road, spotted a pushcart laden with Tad Gola fruits.  This fruit normally arrives in May and is sold till September, but even in January, some tree seems to have borne fruit and helped sellers bring it to market for eager buyers like me.  I paid a hundred rupees for a dozen Tad Golas and got a couple of extra too as the seller wanted to mix the larger ones with smaller ones.  He had some ready to sell fruits with most of the woody part chopped off with a sickle and kept covered under a cloth.  When a customer came to the cart, the seller would then use the sickle to separate the three or seeds from each palm, then sold to the customer. 

Mumbai’s summers are extreme too, with the high humidity dampening spirits more than the temperature with the mercury touching the highs of the ’30s.  A common feature of Mumbai summers is the appearance of Tad Gola, but like my experience above, by chance, one can find the fruit in winter too sometimes.

Tad Gola is the fruit of a palm tree, Borassus flabellifer, which is called by different names across southeast Asia where it is native.  Tad Gola is also called Toddy Palm, Ice Apple, and Palmyra Palm.  It is a tree that grows wild but is also cultivated and even planted in landscapes.

Toddy Palm was a tree that grew extensively across Mumbai in earlier centuries.  One can still spot this tree on the outskirts of Mumbai while traveling from or to the city.  A tall tree the Toddy Palm can reach nearly a hundred feet in height, and different trees bear male and female flowers.  The fruits of the Toddy Palm bears fruits in clumps, and vendors selling it typically have a few clumps on their pushcart to entice customers.

The toddy palms contain a translucent kernel (or seed jelly), which is the edible portion.  To get to the kernel, one has to peel away a creamy, light brown seed coat.  The kernels are sweet, and when tender also contains sweet water, which can be drunk like tender coconut water (but do remember the volume is very low).  Toddy palm seeds have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial properties and are rich in antioxidants. They also improve digestion and helps in the metabolism of glucose.  Toddy palm is very high in water and thus a healthy food.  It contains no fat whatsoever and is rich in some minerals like potassium, calcium, phosphorus, sodium, zinc, and iron.

Tips to choose the best Toddy Palm seeds: Like with tender coconuts where the older the nut is, the lesser is the water, in toddy palms too, the more mature seeds have no water in them.  Also, the water in the immature seeds is sweeter.  The pulp hardens as the seeds mature, and removing the seed coat in an older seed is more difficult than removing the seed in the immature seeds.  So, always ask the vendor to give you the immature seeds.  The seeds with the skin peeled off can be refrigerated and eaten.  The older seeds though easier to handle (as they are harder), have thicker skin that takes more effort to be peeled off.  Also, the jelly from older seeds is bland as the sugar content goes down as the seed matures.  Toddy Palm seeds are sold in dozens or by count.  Residents of Rustomjee Urbania can find Toddy Palm seeds on the road off the highway leading to Nashik, at the junction near Saket Complex, and also at Brindavan Society near the bus stop.

Neera sold in the Mumbai region is made of Toddy Palms and is a good thirst quencher.  It is sweet and provides relief during summers. The use of lime in the container keeps Neera from fermenting and becoming alcoholic.  Neera is harvested from the inflorescence (or flowers) of the toddy tree and, when harvested, is sugary and unfermented.  The high sugar content in the sap makes it vulnerable to spoilage due to which it has to be immediately refrigerated and preserved.  Many different palms, including the Fishtail Palm and Coconut Palm, produce toddy.  Palm jaggery is another product that results from the sap and is a good substitute for sugar and jaggery from sugar cane.  Palm jaggery is harvested and sold in Bengal and Kerala.

The Toddy Palm is one of the Mumbai region’s original natives, and some communities thrived on tapping the tree to produce toddy.  Sadly, with intense urbanization, there are very few pockets of Mumbai that support native vegetation such as the Toddy Palm.  The Toddy Palm is an amazingly useful tree requiring very low maintenance.  The leaf stalk can is used in fencing, and the high-density wood from the trunk is highly durable.  Toddy Palmwood is made into furniture, handicrafts, boats, and building materials. The leaves themselves are woven into mats, roof thatch, baskets, fans, hats, and most interestingly paper-like writing material.  Ancient Indian records in some regions, particularly Tamil Nadu, owe their longevity to being written on palm leaf (called Tala Patra in Sanskrit) that have survived for centuries.  Health enthusiasts will be glad to note that the Tadasana gets its name from the Toddy Palm! No doubt, the Toddy Palm is the state tree of Tamil Nadu.  Lastly, the Toddy Palm is also a favorite of landscapists with the tall tree a good choice to accentuate borders and growing well with minimal care. 

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