Commonly called ‘The King of Oranges’ and ‘pride of Meghalaya’, the renowned Khasi Mandarin of Meghalaya has bagged one of the coveted positions in the world’s first food atlas. The northeastern state of Meghalaya is considered to be one of the richest biodiversity hotspots of the world and known for its exotic flora and fauna and traditional crops.
Khasi mandarin known in the local languages as Soh Niamtra or Soh Myntra in Khasi (Komola or Humoptira in Assamese; Komla in Bengali) is called Soh Sohra in Shillong to indicate its place of origin, Sohra even though a single mandarin tree is not found there!
Khasi mandarin is cultivated only in the state of Meghalaya in both the northern and southern belts though the ones grown in the southern slopes of the Khasi Hills are much sought after for their juiciness and sweetness. The trees grow on the steep but not on the mountainous slopes that run along the border between India and Bangladesh. The best fruits that are cultivated by the southern population of War and War-Jaintia flourish in the chalky soil, extremely hot climate and low altitudes. Locals say that their honey is supremely delicious as the flowers of these mandarin trees provide sweet nectar for the local bees.
Meghalaya is the major producer of this indigenous orange that has contributed immensely to the socio-economic development of this region. This much loved orange which is a little larger than a tennis ball, has a vibrant orange hue, a smooth firm skin that makes it tricky to peel, a heady orangey fragrance and of course, full of sweet juice was granted the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2014.
Oranges are grown in over 10,000 hectares of land with an annual production of about 50,000 metric tonnes. This crop is harvested between November and late February and sometimes even until April. Unlike other varieties, the fruit trees here are not harvested by grafting but by seed. Seeds from the hardiest plants are carefully selected and only the healthiest saplings are planted. It is quite an amazing phenomenon that the specific biology of the seed’s formation remains so distinct that the citrus trees can be reproduced without losing the original characteristics of the tree and its fruit.
The fruits appear after many years only but the trees adapt amazingly well to the local soil and weather conditions and live for longer. Generally, the fruits start to ripen in September when the temperature begins to drop. The farmers use a traditional tool woven out of bamboo to collect the mandarins. This simple yet strong tool allows the farmer to gently pick the fruit from the tree without damaging the fruit. The villages are at the bottom of steep valleys and one needs to walk down five to ten thousand stone steps and then take the journey back up with baskets full of mandarins tied on their backs. The villagers carry loads of 90 to 100 kilos on each journey!
Every community has their own way of preserving the fruit after the harvest; some arrange them in sandy pits and others on the hood of the hearth. This helps to retain the quality of the mandarins till March and maybe even April. During the month of November, the growers make the arduous journey on foot to the nearby villages of Mawphu, Tmar, Pyndengmawlieh and Nongnah to sell their produce.
Khasi mandarin is known for its high nutritional value, distinctive quality and taste, sweet tanginess and high sugar content that makes it suitable in the preparation of pulp concentrates, jams, jellies, marmalades, squashes and packed ready-to-drink juice. Orange citrus oil is another important product for flavouring.
Locals believe that the Khasi mandarin has the ability to dispel anger and so this fruit is gifted to make up for offenses! Khasi mandarin has multitude of uses, is economically viable and is a much revered crop in Meghalaya. It is loaded with bioactive compounds with many health benefits and traditional healers have used it to prevent colds, cure constipation and as an astringent for the skin to mention a few. The fruit, peel, pulp, bark, flowers and seeds are used in the preparation of Ayurvedic medicines. The orange peels are kept in the cupboards to keep away moths and bugs. Peels are used to start woodfire in the kitchens.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)