Sunday, September 23, 2012

All About Apricots (Prunus armeniaca) in India

In Pakistan, apricots are a beloved fruit featuring in several festivities and ceremonies. Though Indians do not have as great of a love affair with apricots as their neighbors, the fruits are still available fresh, dried, and desiccated. Like other temperate fruits, apricots only grow in mild, cooler regions.

Apricot Origins:
Botanists disagree on the precise location of apricot’s origins. According to the book, “A History of the Vegetable Kingdom,” its binomial name Prunus armeniaca is somewhat misleading: Though apricot trees cover the sloped Caucasus regions of Armenia, some naturalists contend that the weather there isn’t conducive to the earliest blossoms of the fruit. Most of the oldest varieties still grown today were first cultivated in China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Iran and Afghanistan.

Early voyagers ranked apricots as treasures on par with spices and precious gems. In 1621, John Tradescant kicked off the fruit-finding frenzy when he boarded a fleet intended to capture pirates off the coast of Algeria. Instead of adhering to the official mission, he captured his own precious loot: an Algiers apricot, along with other stone fruits.

Though some claim apricots have been in India since 3,000BC, it’s more probable that the fruits came to India by way of China some time during or after the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Bertrand Russell commented in one of his works, Useless Knowledge, that Chinese hostages brought apricots to India when held under the Afghan King Kanishka sometime during the ruler’s life between 78AD-144AD.

Availability of Apricots in India:
2011 figures published by the UN’S Food and Agriculture Organization estimate that India produces a mere 10,000 tons per annum, ranking it 38th in world. Put in perspective, Turkey grew 716,415 tons the same year. Jammu and Kashmir’s Ladakh region grows most of India’s apricots. Other regions growing the fruit include Kargil; Lahaul and Spiti of Himachal Pradesh; as well as Kumaon and the Garhwal Hills in Uttar Pradesh.

Although India does not produce many apricots, the nation fosters substantial genetic diversity: According to the book, “Underutilized and Underexploited Horticulture Crops,” 84 important genotypes exist in the country. Approximately 15 of these are of commercial importance. Some of these, like the Halman type, are for drying while the sweet Rakchey Karpo is better suited for table purposes.

Regrettably, most of the fresh fruits go to waste because of the poor sales and distribution. The country’s apricot market is highly disorganized and fragmented, causing unpredictable sales, supply, and demand.

India’s apricot harvest occurs during the late summer months into early autumn. Apricot lovers would do best to stock up on them when available, as they’re highly seasonal.

Desiccated apricots
Where to Find Apricots in India:
Northerners living in the chilly, temperate regions of India have a veritable bounty of luscious apricots. Unfortunately, they are a rare luxury in the south. Even if apricots appear in local markets, they’ve probably been plucked prematurely and are thus under ripe and sour. Produce supply chains are anything but reliable and consistent: one batch of apricots may vary substantially in quality from the next. In fact, southerners have a better chance of enjoying imported Turkish apricots than fresh fruits from the north.

Dried apricots are available year-round, as are desiccated apricots.  The quality of dried fruit varies remarkably in India. Before buying, closely examine the bag and ensure the apricots are soft, pliant, and chewy. Regrettably, many stores purvey hard, dirty, and extremely tough dried apricots.

Anyone seeking sulfur-free apricots in India will likely be disappointed. Most dried fruits have E22, a sulfide preservative that may cause minor allergic reactions.

Plenty of imported dried apricots are available in the markets, from Turkish to California brands. Any store selling imported goods such as cereals and chocolates will likely have dried fruits available as well.

A ripe, nicely colored apricot
Checking for Ripeness in Apricots:
To check if an apricot is ripe, touch the flesh. It should not be hard and tight, but velvety, soft, and yielding to the touch. On some fruits, a rusty blush color will spread throughout the skin.

Perform the mental wall toss as another gauge of ripeness: if the fruit were pitched hard against a wall, it should leave jam-like flesh splattered on the surface—the skin would split open and the soft innards would ooze out. If the apricot would bounce off the wall like a hard golf ball, it’s under ripe.

Avoid apricots with bruises, cuts, or, in the rare case of an overripe apricot, fruits with a fermented smell.

Taste of Apricots:
The pulpy, creamy texture of apricot flesh is akin to pumpkin or yam puree. A ripe apricot tastes sweet and mellow, not highly acidic, and resembles the mild sweetness peach. Apricots give an unobtrusive hit to the palate while offering a distinct, musky, smooth flavor.

If fresh apricots are unavailable, go for a high quality juice brand touting 100% fruit juice. Or, try apricot baby food. For a nearly identical taste to the fresh fruit, purchase desiccated apricots sold in many stores, soak overnight, and then stew.

Apricot kernels taste like apple seeds: A bit sweet like a raw almond, but mildly astringent and bitter.

Nutritional Value of Apricots:
As per the USDA nutrient database, 100g of apricot contains the following values:

11.2g Carb
2g Fiber (8% RDI)
.4g Fat (1% RDI)
1.4g Protein (3% RDI)
1926IU Vitamin A (39% RDI)
10mg Vitamin C (17% RDI)
.9mg Vitamin E (4% RDI)
3.3mcg Vitamin K (4% RDI)
Thiamin (2% RDI)
Riboflavin (2% RDI)
.6mg Niacin (3% RDI)
.1mg Vitamin B6 (3% RDI)
9mcg Folate (2% RDI)
.2mg Pantothenic Acid (2% RDI)
13mg Calcium (1% RDI)
.4mg Iron (2% RDI)
10mg Magnesium (2% RDI)
23mg Phosphorous (2% RDI)
259mg Potassium (7% RDI)
.2mg Zinc (1% RDI)
.1mg Copper (4% RDI)
.1mg Manganese (4% RDI)

For perspective, 1 apricot is 35g.

Apricot kernels
Health Benefits of Apricots:
The health benefits of apricots were not always recognized. In fact, the ancient Western physician, Galen, warned that apricots were only to be consumed if one vomited shortly after. The prevailing view in Europe until the Renaissance was that fruit was best left as a digestive aid. Today, apricots have a number of widely lauded health benefits, dried or fresh.

--The high vitamin A in apricots helps maintain eye health and reduces the risk of cataract formation. Beta carotenoids found in fruits like apricots also manages the epithelial tissue imperative to the health of organs, bones, teeth and even the endocrine glands.
--A 2012 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that the antioxidants in vitamin C and beta-carotene—of which apricots have in abundance—may protect against mild forms of dementia.
--Apricots are a high-fiber fruit. A study published in the American Heart Association’s journal, Stroke, found that every 7 percent increase in daily fiber consumption reduced the risk of first-time stroke by 7 percent.
--A 2013 study conducted at the University of Colorado and published in Cancer Prevention Research found that a high fiber diet may manage the progression of prostate cancer.
--Interestingly, a 2006 study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science found that a compound in apricot kernel extracts inhibits the metabolism of bacteria responsible for body odor, thus having possible applications as a deodorant.
--A 2011 study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology indicates that apricot kernel oil displays cardioprotective benefits.
--A 2011 study published in Lipids in Health and Disease reveals that apricot kernels improved liver functions of rats with hepatic fibrosis

The discussion surrounding apricot kernel’s health benefits is contentious: In 1971, the US Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of laetrile, a drug made from the compound naturally occurring in apricot kernels. The organization did so on the grounds of a lack of evidence regarding its efficacy as an anti-cancer drug, compounded with the risk of toxic cyanide poisoning. Though laetrile is banned from use, distribution, possession and prescription in the US, apricot kernels are available in health food stores.

How to Open/Cut:
Like peaches, apricots require moving the small stone from the center. Use a small paring knife to cut the fruit in half along the stone. Also use the fruit’s natural indentation as a guide for where to cut. Slice the fruit into smaller pieces if required.

Apricots will continue to grow softer and juicier at room temperature, but not sweeter. To soften, keep the fruits in a paper bag and check on them throughout the week—they tend to ripen quickly. Apricots are highly perishable and won’t last more than a few days, even in cool storage.

It’s possible to freeze apricots: First, halve the fruits and remove the bitter seed. Next, blanch the fruits first by submerging them in boiling water and removing them in a minute’s time. Once cooled, dip the pieces in ascorbic acid to prevent browning, and transfer to a freezer bag. It is also possible to freeze dried apricots, but let the fruits thaw for a few hours at room temperature before using in dishes.

If the kitchen is temperate and dry, keep dried apricots at room temperature in a tightly sealed container—oxygen dries the fruits, making them tough and hard to chew. If living in a humid region of India, it’s best to refrigerate dried apricots in an airtight container.

Apricot Jam
Apricot Recipe Ideas:
--Stewed apricots have a lovely rich, honey-like flavor with the consistency of marmalade. Place desiccated apricots in boiling water with a teaspoon of sugar and let them boil for 20 minutes. The taste resembles peach cobbler: gooey, sweet, and sticky. Stewed apricots are the bases of many sweets in India, including the popular Hyderabadi dessert qubani ka meetha. Add custard if desired.
--Make a trail mix or muesli from dried apricots, and add chopped almonds or pecans, oats, raisins, and mango.
--Add chopped, dried apricots to biryani and couscous.
-Make apricot glaze by reducing water, sugar and apricots into a syrupy mix; use to coat on grilled veggies.
--Create a creamy apricot-based semolina pudding: combine soymilk and sugar in a saucepan until it has boiled lightly. Add semolina and stir continuously until thick. Set aside and let the concoction sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Separately, blend apricots, mango, and strawberry into a puree, and transfer to a mixing bowl. Blend the semolina mix until pureed, and then integrate it into the mixing bowl with the fruit. Whisk lightly, and set into serving bowls. Place in the refrigerator and let sit for two or three hours.

Flavor Complements:
Fruits: Peach, nectarine, pear, plum, strawberry, cherry, fig, grape, apple, Asian pear, Mysore raspberry, mulberry, phalsa, jamberry, persimmon, mango, lychee, rambutan, passion fruit

Vegetables: Fava bean, bell pepper, carrot, tomato, eggplant, cucumber, mushroom, truffle

Herbs, spices, and oil: walnuts, pecans, chestnut, hazelnut, pistachio, almonds, orange zest and juice, lemon zest, coconut, clove, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, brown sugar, nutmeg, honey, vanilla, chocolate, black pepper, lavender, wine, champagne, gin, brandy, rum, chai, earl gray, Darjeeling, mint, ginger, jasmine, fenugreek, licorice, tarragon

Random Facts:
Prunus dasycarpa is an apricot hybrid with a deep, brilliant purple color.

During his military expeditions in the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great discovered apricots and called them, “golden eggs of the sun.”

Binomial Name:
Prunus armeniaca

Other Names:
Khubani (Hindi)
Maghz Badam Shirin (Urdu)
Aepricot, Jaradaalu (Kannada)
Chuli (Ladakhi)

Urumana (Sanskrit)


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