Ask a Tamilian about ker, and you’ll get a confused shake of the head. Ask a Rajasthani about the small berry, on the other hand, and she’ll quickly invite you to her house for her specialty-made ker sangri. Capparis decidua is a no-frills, tough shrub… as it must be, in order to survive the harsh conditions of the Thar Desert.
Kair holds exceptional importance in several north Indian communities: the tree offers shade and solace from the scorching desert sun, prevents soil erosion, feeds the locals (and their livestock), provides building materials and medicinal remedies, offers employment through harvesting, and is even considered holy by certain tribes. Indeed, newly married couples give prayers in front of the tree, and they’re often placed throughout cemeteries and crematoriums.
Origin of Ker
Identifying the precise country of caper’s origin is near impossible, and in fact, the range of the fruit’s native habitat is wide. Many variants of capers are native to the Mediterranean basin in the west, parts of North Africa, and as far east as Central Asia. As a condiment, capers date back over 5,000 years.
Capparis decidua’s native region is a bit more limited, but not by much—it’s native to several countries including Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Jordan, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa and Sudan.
Availability of Ker in India
Ker grows wild and unattended throughout India’s arid northwest regions. In Rajasthan and Gujarat, the little berry is a staple within the rural economies. Over 7,000 tonnes of fruit are produced in the Rajasthan districts of Jodhpur and Bikaner alone.
A prime reason for the fruit’s significance is the tree’s ability to survive in regions where no other vegetation can: Indeed, its only growing requirements are low rainfall, shallow soils, and dry, hot temperatures.
Ker shrubs bear fruit two to three times a year, from March through April, and again from May through July. If the shrub bears for a third time, it will occur during the winter months from October through November. Heaviest fruiting occurs right before the monsoons arrive. As a survival mechanism, highest fruiting happens during the driest times of the year.
Where to find Ker in India
Ker seldom makes its way outside of India’s desert regions of the north, though southern markets receive occasional shipments when in season. Ker then becomes available in small to mid-size stores with decent varieties of vegetables. Unfortunately, the fruits shipped to the south are typically the large, poorer quality berries.
In the north, it’s exceptionally easy to find ker—almost every menu in Rajasthan, for instance, offers a dish featuring the fruit. The berry is most often available to consumers in its dry form, though finding fresh berries to pluck from the shrub isn’t difficult. The only challenge finding fresh ker berries in these instances is getting to the fruits before the roaming camels, goats and birds devour them.
The best fruits come from the March-April crop, and the fruits from the winter crops are of significantly poorer quality.
Checking for Ripeness in Ker
Ker berries ripen from a small, green berry no bigger than a peppercorn to a much larger caper the size of a blueberry. When at its largest, the fruit ripens from green to white, lastly settling on a light cherry red.
Taste of Ker
Kairi is seldom eaten out of hand on account of its bitter, acrid taste. One bite inundates the mouth with a hot, peppery sensation. Peeling the fruit helps its edibility, but not by much. This is likely because the sugar content of ker is no more than two percent. When processed by heating or pickling, ker’s pungent, unpleasant bitterness yields to the piquant, zesty, sharp flavor most people associate with delicious robust caper berries.
Small berries are actually more desirable and tastier than large, mature, hard ker fruits. When at their infancy, ker berries are at their most tender and succulent. These small fruits fetch a much higher price in the market.
Nutritional Value of Ker
A 2009 report published in the Journal of Horticulture and Forestry provides the following nutritional values for 100g of ker:
7.81mg Vitamin C
Health Benefits of Ker
Ker has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Indian tribes have utilized fruits, roots, and bark to concoct various remedies. In Ayurveda, capers are hepatic stimulants and have been used for arteriosclerosis, as a diuretic, and as a kidney disinfectant.
According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, the plant acts as a carminative, tonic, emmenagogue, appetite stimulant and aphrodisiac. Parts of the plant have treated rheumatism, cough, and asthma. Pickled fruits treat constipation and other stomach ailments.
Another report titled A Medicinal Potency of Capparis decidua mentions additional uses: The bark treats inflammation and acute pain, whereas the roots treat fever and the buds alleviate boils. In Sudan, parts of the shrub remedy jaundice and joint infections.
Scientific studies have affirmed several of ker’s traditional uses:
--As per a 2012 study published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine, the stems of ker shrubs have cytotoxic activities, as they markedly inhibit the proliferation of metastatic cancer cells.
--According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, the alkaloids in the plant extracts display anti-diabetic activities.
--A 2011 study published in Journal of Pharmacology and Toxicology found that ker shrub stems have hepatoprotective properties.
--According to a 2002 study conducted by the Department of Foods and Nutrition at the Haryana Agricultural University in India, supplementing the diets of 15 hyperlipidemic adults with unripe ker fruits caused a significant reduction in plasma triglycerides, total lipids and phospholipid concentration.
--According to a 2007 study published in Atherosclerosis Supplements, plant extracts significantly reduced plaque formation in the aortas of cholesterol-fed rabbits.
How to Open/Cut:
Some peel large fresh ker berries before preparing, though small berries require no such preparation work. To prepare fresh or dried berries, soak overnight and then boil in salt. These steps soften the fruit, thereby enabling its use in subsequent recipes.
Prepare fresh ker by pickling or soaking within a day of harvest. Store pickled capers either in white vinegar, brine, or keep them coated in coarse salt (see recipes below).
If purchasing pickled ker, keep at room temperature until opening the bottle. Place opened bottles in the refrigerator and abide by the listed expiration date.
Ker Recipe Ideas and Uses:
--Make simple pickled ker by soaking the berries overnight. Then, continue this process for two more days, all while rinsing and replacing the water daily. On the third day, transfer the ker to a concoction of white vinegar and salt.
--Make spicy, oily pickled ker by soaking overnight, and then heating oil with mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, turmeric powder, asafetida, and mango powder. Stir the ker in the mixture, and then transfer contents to a clean, sterilized jar.
--Use pickled ker atop grilled tofu, flatbreads, salads, and eggplant dishes.
--Ker sangri is one of the most popular dishes incorporating the fruit. This is achieved by softening the berries by soaking and then boiling the fruit, followed by sautéing them with “sangri,” a desert bean, in oils and spices. Typical spices include cumin, ginger, garlic, masala, yogurt, dried mango, coriander leaves and chili.
Herbs, spices, and oil: Oil, vinegar, garlic, mustard, mustard seeds, fenugreek, turmeric, red chili, coriander, asafetida, onion, tomato, salt, peppercorn, lemon, red pepper, artichoke, olives, (vegan) cheeses
|Ker sangri (tastes better than it looks!)|
Of the 250 or so Capparis species, India has 26 of them.
The kair tree’s flowering and fruiting patterns act as one of the only bellwethers in the desert. In the case of impending drought, ker shrubs flowers and fruits prolifically.
Capers are technically immature flower buds, which sometimes turn into caper berries if they are not harvested right away. The taste and application of the two are similar (both may be pickled, for instance), but the two are not quite the same thing.
Caper berry (English)
Dela (Delhi and Punjab)
Karil (Uttar Pradesh)
|Dried ker (and sangri, a bean)|