The Khasi mandarin (the Latin Citrus rediculata, or soh sohniamtra in Khasi) is a little bigger than a tennis ball in size and bright orange in colour.
It is distinguished from other mandarins by its tight and smooth skin. Unlike other mandarins, it is not easy to peel, but has more flesh and juice. Once peeled and cut, it releases its sweet, aromatic juice, which makes the khasi mandarin a favourite amongst all citrus fruits.
Though the same genotype is found in many places all over Meghalaya (a region in northeast India), and in fact, the world, the unique flavour of this Khasi mandarin is thanks to a specific terroir.
In the southern belt of Meghalaya that is home to the War and War-Jaintia tribes, the soil has a high limestone content which neutralizes the PH, as opposed to an acidic terroir that would result in less aromatic fruits.
In addition, the low altitudes are favorable as they provide a hotter climate to develop the sweetest fruits for the trees. Interestingly, the flowers of these terroir-bound orange trees also provide sweet nectar for local bees, which explains why the honey is most famous and popular from these areas. Both orange and honey production have long been sustainable livelihoods of the Khasi and Jaintia people.
Typically harvested between November and late February, and sometimes even until April, farmers carve a specific tool out of bamboo wood called a proh, or fork in English for collecting the mandarins. This simple yet handy instrument consists of a 1.5-metre long stick to which a basket with “fingers” is attached. This allows the farmer to gently pick the fruit from the tree into the basket, rather than spoiling it by letting it fall to the ground from the high trees.
A particular practice has been handed down over generations regarding how to best conserve these oranges in their fresh state: First and foremost, it is crucial to keep the oranges together with their stems to prevents spoilage through oxidation.
Subsequently, digging a medium depth hole into the ground and burying the oranges between layers of soil can preserve the fruits until June without diminishing aroma or freshness. This little “orange treasure” is usually constructed underneath the house where, according to traditional knowledge the highest safety and easiest accessibility is guaranteed.
Today the demand for citrus fruits is still very much present, but quality is decreasing every year due to lack of proper tree management. Trees are often too crowded in the fields, sometimes paired with unsuitable cash crops such as beetle nut that takes away the sun for the orange trees.
Recently, a regular festival has been held in the city of Shillong to display the vast variety of oranges from the northeast. This has helped in promoting the unique khasi mandarin, as it always won the first price in terms of taste and beauty. Many efforts have been made to conserve the genetic purity of the khasi mandarin through tissue culture. Saplings derived from these tissue cultures are also sold for a fair price thanks to support by the Department of Horticulture.
Photos—Archivio Slow Food