Friday, March 22, 2013

All About Watermelon in India



Origin of Watermelon
Africa is the original home of watermelon, most likely existing during pre-historic times in the regions known as Namibia and Bostwana. It’s an ancient fruit with deep roots in history—according to the book, “High-Tech Micropropagation,” remnants of the fruit were found as hieroglyphs on Egyptian tombs dating 4,000 years ago. Watermelon seeds were also found in a cave in Hang-Zhou, China around 3,000 BC. When and how watermelon arrived to India is not precisely known, though the seeds likely arrived in ancient times before migrating to China.

Of course, watermelon back then was a far cry from the sweet, juicy fruit eaten today. The fruit believed to be the direct ancestor of watermelon (Citrullus colocynthis) is known as “bitter apple” and “bitter cucumber,” for reference. Even today, most wild watermelons of Africa are more often prized for their seeds than their pulp.

In 2011, the world’s largest producers of watermelon were China, Iran, Turkey, Brazil, and the United States, respectively. India ranked 28th, producing approximately 375,000 metric tonnes in the same year—this amount accounted for a mere .38 percent of the world’s consumption.



Availability of Watermelon in India
Wild watermelon thrives in the country’s northwestern plains, as well as the south and central regions. These too are the areas most conducive to growing commercial varieties.

A number of India’s states grow watermelon. Interestingly, these regions vary considerably in their climate, but the adaptability and versatility of watermelon allows the fruit to thrive in a number of soils. Watermelon simply desires heat: the hotter the better, in fact. According to the National Institute of Industrial Research, watermelon is cultivated in Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, Assam, West Bengal, Karnataka, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu.

India grows approximately 25 commercial varieties, a few of which have delightfully interesting names: “New Hampshire midget,” “Madhuri 64,” “black magic,” and “sugar baby,” to name a few.

Watermelon comes into season during the summer months, usually from April to June. However, unusual weather patterns during planting sometimes introduce the fruit to cities as early as March.  

India's incredible varieties of watermelon

Where to find Watermelon in India
Warm temperatures bring watermelon throughout the country. When in season, vendors sell the delicious red fruits on nearly every corner. In small villages to thriving urban centers, the fruits arrive by the truckful and are eagerly purchased by markets.

A word of caution: Rosy red watermelon slices beckoning thirsty onlookers may not be au naturale—some sellers have a habit of injecting the fruits with red dye to enhance their appearance. Worse yet, the offending dye often used is “Sudan red,” a toxic, category 3 carcinogen banned from use in several countries. Determining which fruits have been subjected dying is difficult, but a few tips are as follows: Avoid bright red watermelons and when in doubt, ask the vendor to cut the fruit as a way of examining it before purchasing.

Watermelons also appear during the off-season. However, these fruits are seldom the delicious, crisp and sweet types found in the summer months. As August approaches, expect disappointingly mealy, insipid flesh from watermelons.

Watermelon sellers of Allahabad

Checking for Ripeness in Watermelon
Check if the watermelon is ripe by employing the practical “thud” test: raise the fruit to your ear, and give a vigorous tap. The best of watermelons have a thudding sound to indicate juicy, dense flesh. Always pair the “thud” tap with its heaviness—the best watermelons should feel heavy for their size. Heavy fruits signal water-rich flesh as opposed to unappealing stringy, dessicated innards.

Ripe watermelons vary in exterior colors, but all should have a lustrous sheen. The fruit should be firm and have no large indentations. A few scratches marring the watermelon is acceptable, but bruises and pock marks are not.

Check the bottom of the fruit: Most watermelons have a discolored “ground spot” indicating where it rested in the soil before picking. The best fruits have a creamy yellow color—if it’s white, the fruit may have been prematurely cut from the vine.

Watermelons may also undergo the “stem test.” Find the small circle near the end of the fruit where it’s been snipped from the vine. If it’s brownish in color, it’s ripe. If it’s green, consider passing on the fruit.



Taste of Watermelon
Watermelon has a sweet, crisp, juicy and hydrating flavor. Its texture is mildly granular, but its roughly 90 percent water content makes for an overwhelmingly juicy fruit. Watermelon is not particularly bright or zesty, despite what its high vitamin C might suggest. Its sweetness is much mellower, with subdued notes similar to a cucumber’s. The sweetest part of the fruit is the center, also classified as the watermelon “heart.”

Watermelon seeds are crunchy, peppery and wholly edible. In fact, seeds contain excellent health benefits: A “Times of India” article cites the seeds as rich in iron, potassium and other essential nutrients.

Nutritional Value of Watermelon
According to the USDA nutrient database, 100g of watermelon contains the following values:

30kcal
7.5g Carb (3% RDI)
.4g Fiber (2% RDI)
.2g Fat (neg)
.6g Protein
569IU Vitamin A* (11% RDI)
8.1mg Vitamin C (13% RDI)
Thiamin (2% RDI)
Vitamin B6 (2% RDI)
Pantothenic Acid (2% RDI)
10mg Magnesium (2% RDI)
112mg Potassium (3% RDI)
Copper (2% RDI)
Mangenese (2% RDI)

Pink-fleshed watermelon contains significantly higher levels of beta-carotene than yellow-flesh varieties.



Health Benefits of Watermelon
Watermelon contains a number of health benefits. According to the book, “The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs,” Yogi Bhajan recommended going on a 3-day watermelon fast to clear kidney deposits, cleanse the gallbladder, and to give the aortal and digestive system a boost. Watermelons act as a coolant, thirst-quencher, detoxifier, diuretic, febrifuge, and, according to some natural healers, an aphrodisiac.

--According to a study published in the “Internet Journal of Nutrition and Wellness,” watermelon seeds possess potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.
--A 2011 study published in “Fitoterapia” indicates that watermelon flesh has strong anti-inflammatory properties.
--A 2011 study published in “Journal of Medicinal Plants Research” shows that watermelon plant extracts combat strains of Giardia lambia, a common gastrointestinal bacterium.
--A 2012 study published in the “Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry” found that consuming watermelon extracts reduced the likelihood of weight gain, decreased plasma cholesterol concentrations, improved the body’s natural balance of cytokinones (the compounds responsible for managing inflammation), and attenuated atherosclerosis development.
--A 2003 study in the “Journal of Nutrition” revealed that drinking watermelon juice increased plasma concentrations of lycopene, a substance known to fight cancers, prevent macular degeneration and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.


How to Open/Cut:
As is the case with all melons, wash before cutting—because the fruits rest on the ground before harvest, the rind may carry a number of bacteria strains found in soils. These bacterial strains may be especially problematic if watermelon farming occurs near livestock farming.

Watermelon can be cut in a variety of ways. For wedges, Chef Scott Schwartz of the Culinary Institute of America recommends using a serrated bread knife to cut from one end of the watermelon to the next.  Saw through the fruit on one end, and spin the fruit to complete the cutting on the other. Place one watermelon half facedown onto the cutting board, and cut down the center of the fruit to slice it into fourths. Continue leaving each triangular section facedown on the cutting board, then slice into wedges.

For slicing watermelon cubes, lop off both ends of the fruit to stand it upright on the cutting board. Using a large sharp knife, cut away the thick rind by working the knife down the sides of the fruit. Once it’s rind-free, lay the fruit on its side and cut the melon directly down the middle. Take one half and cut into slabs. Place these slabs on top of the other, and then cut into long, thick strips. Rotate the fruit 90 degrees, and then cut these strips into cubes. Here’s a video illustrating the process:




Storage:
Whole watermelons kept in a warm summer kitchen will keep for about a week.
Refrigerated watermelons keep for two to three weeks in the refrigerator at temperatures no lower than 55 degrees Fahrenheit—any lower, and the shelf life reduces dramatically. Note: Extended lifespan in the fridge comes at the expense of sweetness and a more well rounded flavor.

Place plastic wrap over refrigerated cut melon halves: This will keep the watermelon from drying out and prolong its shelf life.

*For optimal nutrient content, keep watermelons out of the refrigerator—according to a 2006 study published in the “Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry,” watermelons kept at room temperature had 40 percent higher lycopene levels and nearly 140 percent higher beta-carotene levels than freshly picked fruits. When placed in the refrigerator, on the other hand, these nutrient levels stayed the same.

Watermelon Recipe Ideas and Uses:
--Make hydrating watermelon juice by simply blending and straining the fruit. The juice pairs well with cucumber, honeydew, grape, strawberry, ginger, lemon, mint, and pomegranate.
--Make gazpacho by blending the pulp with cucumber, bell pepper, lemon juice, salt, pepper, cilantro, and avocado or olive oil.
--Create a simple watermelon fruit salad by combining cubed fruits with cucumber, pomegranate seeds, mint, and a zesty lemon vinaigrette.
--Use skinned watermelon as the basis of a watermelon cake: use large cubes as the cake base, and adorn with kiwi slices, strawberries and melon skewers.
--Make “watermelon pizza” by using the large ring as the “crust.” Use jam as the “sauce” and top with shredded coconut “cheese.”
--Create watermelon popsicles by pureeing the juice and freezing. Add chunks of fresh fruit such as strawberries, blueberries and kiwi if desired.
--Add chopped watermelon to salsa recipes, gently folding in the fruit at the end of the salsa preparation.
--Combine watermelon juice with white wine to make a nice spritzer. Or, soak watermelon balls in vodka for an hour and serve chilled. Use mint (or even basil) to garnish.
--Use the hollowed out shell of a large watermelon half to hold fruit punch.




Note: watermelon.org has a staggering variety of watermelon recipes (though not all are vegan).

*Some choose to eat the crisp, dense watermelon rinds as well. Japan and the southern states of the US, for instance, pickle the rinds and serve it as a vegetable. Eating the rinds is, however, a debated topic. The rind is rich in citrulline, an amino acid that contributes to the removal of ammonia from the body and wound healing. It also contains zinc, potassium, iron, calcium, and phosphorous. On the other hand, the raw rind can be tough for some to digest and it also carries a bacteria risk thanks to its proximity to the soil during cultivation.

Flavor Complements:
Strawberry, cucumber, honeydew, cantaloupe, lemon, lime, grape, blueberry, mint, ginger, tomato

Random Facts:
Though one would think seedless watermelons are preferable to ones full of pesky black seeds, those living in the Kalahari region would beg to differ—to them, the seeds are a delicacy to roast and pulverize as a way of making a nutty source of sustenance.

The world’s largest watermelon weighs 268 pounds, a record unmatched since 2005.

Mark Twain praised the fruit when he claimed, “When one has tasted watermelon he knows what the angels eat.”

Binomial Name:
Citrullus lanatus

Other Names:
Tarbooz (Hindi and Urdu)
Tarbuj (Manipuri)
Kadu vrindavana (Marathi)
Eriputccha (Telegu)
Kallangadi balli (Kannada)
Tormuj (Bengali)
Indrak (Gujarati)

Related Fruits:
Citrullus colocynthis
Cucumus colocynthis
Colocynthis vulgaris






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