If there's one fruit that has some kind of invisible power to instantly make your mouth water even by looking at it, it's the exotic sohphie, the box myrtle bayberry, a local, naturally grown, fruit of Meghalaya!
In Khasi, we describe this sensation as jawdud. It's a kind of pavlovian reflex. The mere sight, talk or thought about sohphie causes instant salivation! Not to speak about what happens when you actually eat it!
If this naturally grown, local fruit is that amazing, the tree is equally so.
Okay, that's a no-brainer but do you know some trees are more amazing than others?
One example is the Box Myrtle tree. How?
Firstly, Box Myrtle belongs to a species of wild trees that have one special characteristic: they are actinorhizal. That means they are kinds that are capable of enriching the soil around them by fixing nitrogen from the air into it!
Amazing, huh? But how?
They harbour the Frankia, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, in their roots nodules. In the process, the tree and bacteria form a fantastic symbiotic relationship that serves two purposes.
Because these trees thrive well in depleted soils, planting them help reclaim soils that are damaged by activities like mining and forest burning. Additionally, dunes can stabilize and erosion can halt or slow down.
Now, isn't that incredible?
Secondly, Box Myrtle also gives us the marvellously exotic and luscious Sohphie fruit. Bayberry is also one of its names and it's very sour but enjoyable to eat.
It's full of Vitamin C, antioxidants and nutrients and you feel a kind of freshness in your mouth once you bite into this exotic fruit of meghalaya.
It's like a kind of natural teeth and mouth cleanser and freshener! Pickles made of this naturally grown fruit, Sohphie, have a unique taste; you have to eat and experience them to get why we are saying so.
There are two types of this local fruit of Meghalaya,
Sohphie, a local fruit of Meghayala, grows wild in the Khasi hills but it's found elsewhere in the Himalayan region too. You get them in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand but those species aren't as succulent as the Sohphie fruit from Meghalaya. Some local names are Kaphal in Hindi, Nagatenga in Assamese and Keifang in Mizo.
Other bayberry species also are found in Pakistan, Nepal, China, Japan and Southeast Asia.
Once plucked this exotic fruit stays fresh only for 2-3 days ; so it's best to make preserves of it. While you can enjoy sohphie pickle with your meals throughout the year, the fruits make great jams and jellies too.
My folks in Mawphlang routinely make 'um sohphie', that is, sohphie water and preserve it in bottles. 'um' is water in Khasi. This water comes in very handy in relieving stomach upsets and other tummy problems.
Bayberry juice is insanely simple to make:
1. Boil a litre of water
2. Let it cool for some time,
3. Pour the water in a jar or a bottle
4. Drop about 10-15 ripe Sohphie into it and close the lid.
After a few days, the fruits' compounds have seeped into the water that's become medicine. You can also add either sugar or salt to the solution. Stored properly it stays for the whole year.
Whenever there's a stomach problem, like loose motion or gas, take 2 to 4 teaspoons of it. The problems will vanish soon after.
Another type of um sohphie is the pink-coloured drink made by crushing the pulp of the sweeter bayberry, the red sohphie-nam. Of course, you get it only during fruiting season. It's filled with antioxidants and is so refreshing and energising!
Both the sohphie types have marvellous medicinal properties. Local folks and traditional indigenous healers use all parts of the tree to make remedies—root, bark, leaf, seed and fruit.
Although every season brings out its own fruits, mid-spring is a special time in Meghalaya. Come April and the world begins to burst out with exotic fruits of various kinds, sizes and colours. It goes on like this till June and, sometimes, till August.
This is the time you get to see basketfuls of both kinds of Sohphie fruits in the markets everywhere. The greenish-yellow ones and the juicy red ones are heaped like mounds of ping-pong balls and marbles and they are very, very inviting! The skin of this local fruit of Meghalaya may be rough and waxy to feel but underneath they hide a soft, pulpy and succulent flesh.
If you want sohphie for pickling, the unripe ones are the best. They are firm to the touch, have a deep green colour and are slightly more acidic in taste. But because of their tighter flesh and lower moisture content, they make better pickles. Make sure you choose bigger sizes for more substance.
On the other hand, if you want to eat them raw, the riper ones are great to sink your teeth into. They have a yellowish or reddish tint on their skins, are juicer and less sour. Fully ripe ones may even taste sweet.
The first bite into the flesh will ignite sparks of indescribable sudden shocks inside your mouth that will also send shivers through your whole body!
You'll grimace and make faces as if punched on the teeth. Your lips will pucker, your eyes will shut tight and you'll clench your teeth fast. Your mouth, no, your whole head, will go numb for a good while and you've no choice but wait for the sensation to subside!
But as you take more bites you start getting used to the acid and flavours. You'll sense a combination of sour and sweet, tangy and punchy all at once!
It's always like that in the beginning but that's how people enjoy Sohphie and get hooked to it!
Khasis love to eat it with a bit of salt and chilli flakes, or they make a salad of the pulp by scraping it off the stone. Then they mix with salt or sugar or both. Dust in some chilli flakes, pour on a spoon of mustard oil and mix thoroughly. It's as yum as it can get!
Some folks can't tolerate so much sourness. For them the sweeter and invitingly red sohphie nam is ideal. They're half the size of sohphie and you can't have enough of them once you get the taste.
As we've said earlier, sohphie-nam makes great fruit juice, jams and jellies too.
Sohphie pickle recipe is a super simple and here's how:
Once the season sets in, grab the best fruits. You'll need the green variety.
Select the less-ripened ones with firmer flesh. The ripe ones will not be ideal as they have more moisture.
Your sohphie pickle is now ready to be enjoyed with your rice, parathas or chapattis!
P.S. If you want a little more pungency and spiciness, add about 100 grams of bird’s eye chillies (or any other chilli) to the ingredients. Make sure the chillies are drained of moisture like the Sohphie.
Sohphie is one among many edible but underutilised wild fruits with tremendous food, nutrition and medicinal value. It grows abundantly in forest regions less frequented by humans in Meghalaya although its distribution is not limited to the state.
You get sohphie in other places such as Assam, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Nepal although you will not find them as large and succulent as those found in East Khasi hills of Meghalaya.
Species of Mryrica are found in other countries also. Pakistan, Nepal, Japan, China and Southeast Asia all have close relatives of Meghalaya's sohphie.
For the rural folk in Meghalaya, it is one good source of income as well. But since it grows in the wild or the peripheries of villages and forests, people don't take as much care about its preservation or propagation.
Researchers say its population is dwindling, which is sad. Villagers collect the fruits by lopping off whole branches, and use the twigs as firewood.
Sometimes young trees are cut down before they have a chance to grow. People are not aware of the wealth in their hands.
After having read about Sohphie fruit you may be wanting to taste it? The only way is to visit Meghalaya between April and July or buy pickled Sohphie. ?
Sorry we at Zizira cannot reach these to you, but we introduced you to an exotic variety of fruit from our region!
Hope you like this story about a local fruit of Meghalaya, a nature blessed state we call our home.