Sunday, April 8, 2012

Ladakhi Apricot

Apricot (Prunus armeniaca), locally known as "chulli," is one of the most nutritive, delicious and commercially important fruit crops of Ladakh. It has a wide range of distribution in different parts of Ladakh with particularly abundance in Sham areas (lower Ladakh) including Dha-Hanu, Garkhon, Skurbuchan, Domkhar, Wanla, Khaltse and Timosgang. Apricot in Ladakh, is believed to have been introduced a century back either from China or Central Asia. Since then, apricot has become one of the most preferred and commercially cultivated fruit crop of Ladakh and has become an integral part of the people there.

Apricot, being a unique, tolerant and highly stable plant, can grow exuberantly in wide range of jagged sandy soil, having very low nutrient and moisture content, in the Cold desert of Ladakh. Luxuriously adapted in the extreme environment here in Ladakh, the apricot tree can attain a height of about 4-7m bearing heart shaped leaves, and produces flowers in spring and friuts in summer. With the onset of breezy spring, these trees overcome the long terrible winter dormancy and start producing young healthy leaf buds, and by the month of April-May they produce beautiful white or pinkish flowers that not only ensures the continuity of their population but also give a unique look to the sandy desert of trans-Himalaya. By the month of August-September, they start producing yellow-orange, rounded or oval shaped fruits that are juicy, sweet taste with peculiar apricot flavour.

There are many varieties of apricot grown in Ladakh, which differ from one another in taste (sweet, bitter, sour), size, shape and physical appearance. Some of these varieties include Halman, Laktse-karpo, Safaida, Khanteh etc. Halman and Laktse-karpo are the most preferred one for commercial purpose. Both, the fruit and kernel of apricot is believed to be highly nutritive and consumed as either fresh or dried. They are known to possess a good amount of vitamin-A, vitamin-C, potassium, calcium, iron, carbohydrate, amino acids and sugars. Apricot has been consumed by the people of Ladakh for decades. It has became an integral part of the traditional culture of people here. Local people serve dried or fresh apricot as an excellent dessert, particularly on traditional festival occasions. During the chilly winters, when people prefer to remain indoor, dried apricot fruits make an excellent eatable that compensates the long cold winter, especially for children who use to fill their pocket with dried fruits and enjoy themselves.

In entire Ladakh, a farmer practices one of the best and oldest method of fruit preservation and storage by open sun drying. The local people, particularly women and children, collect the fully ripend apricot in a large traditional basket (locally known as Tsepo) and wash them under running water to remove the dusts, and then spread on the roof top for drying under open sun light. The fruit are dried either as whole fruit (locally known as Fating) or seed are separated before drying, and the dried fruit without seed are called Chulli skampo. During the sun drying process, the fruit loses its natural colour and turns dark brown. This is the major drawback of traditional method of sun drying in Ladakh. However, at present, the Ladakhi farmers have adapted several improved methods of drying including treatment with sulphurdioxide and use of polyhouse apricot drier. These methods are believed to reduce or prevent the browning of fruits.

From the commercial point of view, apricot has been the major source of income for many Ladakhis who are engaged in cultivation and marketing of this fruit. Halman and Laktse-karpo are the two prime varieties that have a good demand in the market and are profitably sold @ Rs 200 - 250 per kilogram. Besides, the kernel of apricot is also consumed and marketed by locals. The seed with sweet kernel is consumed as dry fruit and make a good market price of Rs 100-150/kg while the seed with bitter kernel are used for oil extraction. The apricot oil (locally called tseghumar) is a multipurpose oil with a peculiar apricot flavour and is sold at a remarkable price of Rs 300-500 per litre. Traditionally, the oil is extracted from the semi-roasted kernels by crushing them in a large wooden mortar (locally termed as Thorn), followed by heating and compressing them with few drops of water on a flat stone(called as Tsigg). Besides, several other products such as apricot jam, squash, jelly and cake are being produced for commercial purposes.

This is worth mentioning here that Ladakh is one of the major producer of apricot in India, but, at present almost 90% of the fresh apricot being produced in this cold arid region go waste and its market value stands abysmal. The prime reason for such debacle is the lack of proper network for processing and supplying apricot products in Ladakh and elsewhere in India. The local apricot growers, though, have the knowledge of cultivation and drying, but, they are devoid of any modern technical skills for proper preservation, storage, transportation and marketing of apricot products. This results in a huge less not only to the poor farmers but also to the economy of Ladakh in general.

Keeping in view the major challenges of apricot processing and marketing, the people of Ladakh particularly farmer and young generation needs a deep understanding and awareness of apricot production and commercialization. Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR) has made a significant research on apricot propagation, processing and commercialization in Ladakh. In fact, several such scientific research is needed to overcome the major obstacle faced by apricot growers and marketers. . If this God gifted natural resource of Ladakh is to be commercialised and made a potential source of income for thousands of poor Ladakhi farmers, then the local government and non-government agencies, who seem to be complacent, needs to recognise the potential of apricot and go hand in hand with farmers.

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