Summer is at its peak in some countries in the Middle East during July-August. The mercury even soars to more than 45°C during the day. Information has it that the highest temperature recorded last year in Kuwait was 53.1°C on 15 June, 2010. People resort to various measures like using air-conditioners, reaching out for their sun glasses, sun screen lotions, umbrellas, hats and drinking lots of chilled drinks to get respite from the scorching heat. They even go to the extent of staying indoors during most of the day time and venture out only during nights :-) Last summer, I was quite new to the place and was in the process of getting acclimatized. Amidst juices, barley water, butter milk and other such usual stuff to beat the heat, I was introduced to a coolant prepared from a not so common ingredient called Gond Katira.
Gond (Urdu: gum) Katira follows in the line of gum arabic, xanthum gum and guar gum and is used as an additive in the food industry. Known by a myriad of names like Goond, Katira or Quatira, Dragon gum, Tragacanth gum, Shiraz gum, gum Elect and Qujah, it is referred to as E413 on food labels. Katira serves as an emulsifier, thickener, binding agent and stabilizer. It is used in sauces, salad dressings, processed cheese, cottage cheese, ice cream, icing and confectionery. On acquiring this information, I frantically searched the labels of some of these foods at home, but was disappointed on not spotting E413 on any :-( Then it dawned on me that since Katira is native to Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, I should rather be looking for it on products manufactured from such places.
Katira is the exudate obtained from the roots and incisions made in the stem of various species of leguminous shrubs belonging to the genus Astragalus (locoweed or milk vetch). Though the gum is extracted from A.adscendens, A.tragacanthus and A.gummifer, the one from the latter (common name: goat’s thorn) is rated to be of the best quality. The gum is tasteless, odourless, predominantly dull white with tinges of brown and amber. It is viscous and dries into flakes, blocks or crystals on exposure to air. It is composed of polysaccharides and like any other gum has no nutritional value. Its virtue of swelling on absorption of water paved way for its use as a texturant in food industry; this trait also makes it a good laxative. Katira packets are usually placed along with the spices and condiments in super markets and cost 600 fils per 100 g.
Gum Karaya or Indian Tragacanth is often mistaken for Katira. Though Karaya has properties similar to that of Katira, it is the sap obtained from the bark of a tree called Sterculia urens (local name: Thapsi or Karaya tree) and its industrial identity is E416. Karaya is sometimes used to adulterate Katira.
Now, for the preparation of the coolant:
- Gond Katira– 10 g
- Water — 300 ml
- Milk — 500 ml
- Sugar — as desired
- Cardamom powder– a pinch
- Chopped Almonds — a few pieces
- Pound the Katira blocks to get smaller crystals. Do not powder them finely as it may make it difficult to separate the impurities.
- Soak the crystals in water overnight so that they absorb water and swell. The swelled up gel is not gooey but sort of stiff. It looks like crushed ice, to be precise. Tip: Do not be misled by the small quantity of gum taken for preparation because it expands to enormous volume. About 25 g of gum in 300 ml of water filled a 500 ml capacity bowl up to the brim on gelling. So, use a relatively large bowl to soak the gum.
- Next day, drain the water away; wash the gel twice or thrice; remove the impurities.
- Boil milk; add sugar and cardamom to it; simmer it and reduce it to half its volume; refrigerate it.
- Add the chilled flavoured milk to about 2-3 tbsp of gel.
- Garnish with chopped almonds.
Wow! This gummy coolant is not a mere visual treat, it tastes yummy as well.
The traditional preparation is a simple mixture of the swelled up gel with cold milk and sugar. But just to pep it up a little, I added the thickened milk, flavouring and nuts. We could tap our imagination to extend Katira’s use in sherbets, cordials, custards and many other desserts.