It was everywhere up north, but I hadn't noticed it on my previous trips.
It grows wild, in Pakistan's Shigar Valley of Baltistan and Shimshal Valley of upper Hunza/Gojal region; a fruit that is widely coveted in Western Michelin-starred kitchens like noma. But locals in these far north valleys care less about eating it and more about using it as barbed wire for fencing around their farmland to keep the animals out.
It's an innocuous part of the landscape in the dry Karakorum mountain range high up in Pakistan's northeast mountainous terrain, home to K2 and many other mighty peaks. Mostly growing wild along river beds, the first time I encountered sea buckthorn (Hippophae) was in late summer of 2008 in upper Gojal's remote 10,000 feet Shimshal Valley in northern Pakistan.
It is here where the ripe orange and red berries grow along the water's edge and brighten the landscape with their brilliant color.
I thought nothing of it, except that it was beautiful—in an odd, thorny sort of way.
That same winter, I was traveling by bus up the KKH (Karakoram Highway, the old Silk Route) to Kashgar from Rawalpindi. This was when I first tasted sea buckthorn in a tangy, sour-sweet, slightly bitter jam at the Serena Hotel in Gilgit, the areas main regional hub.
I was determined to bring some back home to Karachi and Pasadena where I live. No one in Gilgit knew much about it, except that the hotel bought its jam from a supplier in Skardu, Baltistan.
I poked around, searching for clues to find someone who might know of sourcing it in Gilgit. Finally, I was able to locate Wazir Aman, a man who pretty much has a PhD in sea buckthorn studies. A sort of mad scientist meets mad cook, he has been making and selling the juice and jams for years, and churns out sea buckthorn by-products out of a tiny cabin right off the KKH. Studying art in Karachi—like many art school graduates—his education had left him struggling for cash so he returned home to look for employment up north, earning an income by carrying loads and cooking for trekking expeditions. I can't recall what piqued his interest in sea buckthorn, but he began doing extensive research, and, among other things, discovered that the longevity of crows—which feed on the berries—is indebted to the fruit. This is what got him hooked on promoting sea buckthorn to people.
I followed my nose to find his scruffy cabin a few hours north of Gilgit, which was crammed with all sorts of things to cook and experiment with. His buddies sat chatting on a few scattered chairs, huddled around small tables. Wooden shelves filled with empty glass jam jars and rows of orange-looking juice in green, one-liter 7UP bottles decorated the walls. A two-burner gas stove sat on one of the very messy counters, sharing space with tins containing oil, sugar, salt, bags of berry powder, and who knows what else.
I sat drinking the customary sweet hot milk tea, listening with rapt attention to Wazir's tales of his life and the benefits of this miracle fruit. He extracts its juice for controlling high blood pressure and diabetes, grinds the sea buckthorn into powder for medicines, makes pulp for jams, and even presses the berries for oil.
I bought it all—the ideas and the merchandise.
He whipped up three jars of jam for me and one bottle of juice before I left next day. No one drank the sour, bitter juice when I brought it home, but everyone licked the jam jars clean. Wazir gets his raw material from the Shimshal Valley and from a man named Ghulam Nabi Shigri in Skardu, Baltistan. Ghulam Nabi (the king of Balti sea buckthorn) exports the dry crushed berry to markets elsewhere in the country, which then make it further afield to Europe's medicine and cosmetic industries. Wazir's successful experiments with jams and juices even helped him pay off a large chunk of his art school loans.
That sounds like a miracle fruit to me!
Among all the minerals, fatty acids, and antioxidants it's famous for, sea buckthorn is best known for its high vitamin C content, but I barely met anyone in these northern valleys who was eating it for health reasons. On subsequent trips, I managed to locate a jam outlet in Skardu, Nabi Shigri's warehouse, as well as a government-run agricultural research institute in Skardu that is making jam, extracting the precious oil, drying the leaves for tea, and pounding the berries into a powder for a Tang-like dry juice. I was delighted to know that such a large organization is promoting the use of the berry, even if the world is still largely ignorant of its existence.
I stock up on sea buckthorn jam from Skardu whenever I am there, but I avoid being overly generous in sharing it. Getting a bottle of jam from so far north in Pakistan is just as cumbersome as jumping the thorny shrub to graze on forbidden farmlands. Someday I hope to catch up with Wazir Aman again and hear about the next miracle fruit he might have discovered in those remote mountains.