All things lime and lemony

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on June 01, 2018

When the mercury and tempers are soaring, a squeeze of the familiar green and yellow fruits goes a long way in cooling things down

Don’t know about you, but I’m having a series of bad menu days.

We’re in the throes of a muggy summer. The suffocating reality is compounded by newspaper articles about the weather — designed to fry our toes and stew our brains.

To make matters worse, we aren’t even allowed to do frying and stewing in peace. My three daughters are in the midst of final exams — which means that the household temperature is about 20 degrees higher than it is in the nearest furnace. And the mood is many degrees grimmer.

The weather makes sure that I’m short on inspiration when it comes to tantalising meals. The mathematics-papers-gone-awry make sure that everyone else is short on appetite when it comes to untantalising meals. The outcome is a fridge heaving with leftovers — and a household functioning on tart yellow lemons and sharp green limes.

Bagloads of them, delivered almost daily by the amused staff of Citypoint Vegetables.

Aapke nimbu,” he smirks, wondering what we do with the sacks of sour fruit.

Well, to answer his unvoiced question:

The yellow and green fruits go into the nimbu pani that’s glugged by the gallons. They are squeezed into the soda that’s chugged down by the bottle. They are squirted into plain rice (the only thing that can possibly be consumed after a mitochondrion has been wrongly labelled during the biology exam and half a mark hangs in balance). They are even rubbed onto chapatis, which are then sprinkled with salt, rolled up and gobbled while tackling a bewildering Hindi comprehension on the Jantar Mantar.

All of which has forced me to look afresh at this most humble of fruits — sometimes lime, sometimes lemon, depending on Citypoint’s supply of the day. The yellowy green orb, packed with vitamin C and antioxidants, is the most versatile of kitchen ingredients.

While pink grapefruits, dramatic blood oranges and exotic kumquats are the darlings of the glossies and chi-chi eateries, the ordinary nimbu is the powerhouse of the citrus family. It can be stirred into drinks, mixed into salads, whisked into cake and squeezed into tea. It makes the perfect sauce for fish, a wonderful marinade for chicken and adds pep to everything from daal to palak paneer.

Which is why it is strange that we know so little about its origins. Scientists believe that the lemon is a native of India, where it has been cultivated for over 2,500 years. It travelled to the Middle East and Africa with Arab traders, who valued the plant more for its ornamental uses than for its bright, tangy fruit. The Egyptians, though, used the fruit to invent lemonade — which, if you ask me, is as marvellous a contribution as the Pyramids.

The Arabs introduced the lemon tree to Spain in the 11th century, and within a few hundred years it became widely used both in world kitchens as well as wars. Lemon juice was a key ingredient in invisible ink — widely used by spies to pass on secret messages and arrange sneaky liaisons. A treasure trove of vitamin C, it helped the British navy overcome scurvy, undertake longer voyages and defeat Napoleon.

Perhaps spies don’t use lemon juice any more, but cooks certainly do, in many wonderful ways.

Think pink lemonade sorbet and a white, creamy lemon gelato. Or a basic lemon sugar crêpe and rich lemon meringue pie. Or a fat jar of lemon curd to brighten breakfast.

Think lemon-butter fish. Or kachumbar spiked with nimbu. Or hearty stews infused with lemon zest. Or lemon rice speckled with peanuts and curry patta.

Jars filled with salted lemons that are left out in the sun and allowed to sharpen and wrinkle into sour-spicy pickles.

Or for that matter, think of Harry and Meghan’s elderflower and lemon wedding cake (made with syrup distilled from the elderflower trees at the Queen’s estate in Sandringham and the juice of 200 Amalfi lemons) that made lemon cakes hip all over again.

Not that lemons need royal ambassadors.

There are more than enough lemon lovers out there. Feng Shui practitioners say that lemon absorbs negative energy (you’re supposed to carry a lemon around so that it absorbs the gloomy-doomy feelings of the day and allows you to escape untouched). Hiccup-busters advocate biting on a lemon. The pot-pourri crowd suggests wonderfully fragrant concoctions.

I’ve never attempted any of these. Lemons and limes never hang around the house long enough for experimentation. So I’ll do without my citrusy pot-pourri and my lemon bad-energy-buster. But leave you with a thought for a sweltering summer day: If life throws you lemons… why then, bake a batch of lemon bars.

Lemon bars

For the base:

2 cups sifted flour

1⁄2 cup powdered sugar

1 cup butter

For top:

4 large beaten eggs

2 cups white sugar

1⁄3 cup lemon juice — more if you are a lemon lover

1⁄4 cup flour

1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder


1 Mix the butter into the flour and sugar with your hands, till it clings together. Then press into a 13x9 x 2-inch pan.

2 Bake at 350°F for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned.

3 For the filling, beat together eggs, sugar and lemon juice. Sift together flour and baking powder. Stir into egg mixture.

4 Pour over baked, cooled crust. Bake at 350°F for 25 minutes. Cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Cut into bars.

Shabnam Minwalla   -  BUSINESS LINE


Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author. Her latest book is What Maya Saw

Published on June 01, 2018

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