Why Kaji Nemu is so dear to the Assamese

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Why Kaji Nemu is so dear to the Assamese

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Kaji nemu at a local market in Assam

Kaji nemu at a local market in Assam
| Photo Credit: Irin Kashyap

If you thought the love language of an Assamese is a cup of good tea, you have probably not dined enough with them. No, it is not the alu pitika (Assamese mash potato) or the famed fish tenga. It is the famed Kaji nemu (kaji lemon), which has been declared the state fruit of Assam. Kaji nemu is a lemon whose botanical name is citrus limon, and a GI-certified product. The oval-shaped elongated lemon looks a bit like the gondhoraj lebu but is different. It is not as pungently fragrant as the gondhoraj and its peel is smooth and thin. 

Kaji nemu declared the state fruit of Assam

Kaji nemu declared the state fruit of Assam
| Photo Credit:
Irin Kashyap

The Kaji nemu is a staple in every Assamese household. The taste of the lemon is such that people even chew the slightly bitter rind. In Assam when anyone says nemu, (Assamese word for lemon), they be only referring to Kaji nemu. While this is easily available in various parts of Assam, getting Kaji nemu can be quite a task in other parts of India. Those living away from Assam on their annual visits home will do everything to bring back a few. Blame its heady aroma and the taste that makes it stand apart from other lemons.  

Going places

This lemon is now being exported to UAE and London. Farmers are growing these lemons and attracting many tourists to these farms in Baksa, a district in Assam. Ask anyone what they miss most about not living in Assam and one of the obvious answers, software professional, Angana Gohainbarua says is, “The Kaji nemu. When I visit home in Guwahati, I make sure to have a slice or two everyday. I usually carry a few with me when I return but it only lasts a few days and then I miss them.” 

Nemu lovers feel anything served with a squeeze of this lemon makes it perfect. Homemaker Rakhi Das says, “My carry-on luggage is food. One of them is the kaji nemu, the other being tea. The good thing about this lemon is that if picked carefully and stored well, it can last a couple of weeks in the refrigerator. When I moved to Gujarat after my wedding, I missed my parents and the nemu. My parents send me nemu whenever they know anyone is travelling to Gujarat, which is not so common.” 

Rakhi says she felt she hit a jackpot when she found some vendors who source Assamese ingredients on order. “I tried them a couple of times even though it is slightly expensive. What I am not happy about is the quality. In those times, I console myself with ‘something is better than nothing’.” 

Not without the nemu

Clothes and shoes can wait, not the lemon. Irin Kashyap, the founder of Tukura Home, a home decor brand that sells Assamese products says, “When I travel back to Bareily from Assam, I don’t mind leaving behind some clothes and shoes, to make space for kaji nemus. I pick the hard ones and wrap them in newspaper and put them in my check-in luggage.”

The kaji nemu has found instant fans when introduced to non-Assamese. Arundati Rao, the founder of Escapades Baking Academy, Kondapur, Hyderabad says, “My Assamese assistant at my Baking Academy brought it from her hometown and I was impressed by their fragrance and flavour. I used both the zest and juice in multiple items like lemon curd and lemon cookies, apart from other recipes and it always elevates the taste and flavour. They are an excellent ingredient where the recipe calls for a stand-out tartness and they can give all the meyer lemons a run for their money.” 

In demand

In Hyderabad, the lemons are sourced by a few vendors in Secunderabad and Chandanagar, and the queue to buy them is always a long one. Sajjad Ali, a vegetable vendor in Sainikpuri says, “I have bookings for this lemon. My regular customers tell me the required number and I source it for them.” Ali says no one buys less than 10 pieces at a time and come back to pick more within a week. 

This seedless lemon grows all year round. The best season to enjoy them, however, is between March and October. This is the time when they are juciest.  

The much loved kaji nemu

The much loved kaji nemu
| Photo Credit:
Prabalika M Borah

Ankita Deka, Associate Professor of Social Work and MSW Program Director at Augsburg University, Minneapolis says she is waiting to see the lemon in stores that source Indian products. She says, “The thought and smell of kajinemu stoke up warm feelings of home. Growing up, each family meal was complete only when the plate of condiments had the vertically cut slices of the nemu neatly laid out. I remember squeezing the juice on bowls of warm dal and gulping it down like a beverage. I also remember relishing the rind of the lime long after the meal was over and the plate dry. Kaji nemu is the ultimate signage of my Assamese identity, which I proudly wear, even though I have lived away for more than  two decades. Some days, as I prepare a simple family meal, I yearn for a slice of the nemu, and the years gone by.” 

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