Whenever I hear of a little-known Indian ingredient that packs a nutritional punch, my ears (or rather taste buds) perk up. To discover a fruit or vegetable which is not only ample in vitamins and antioxidants but also genetically suited to the Indian body through centuries of consumption is like finding a natural treasure. Case in point is the Ladakhi "gold berry" which grows on the particularly thorny sea buckthorn plant.
Berry Nice to Meet You
Called tsukyu, dhurchuk and tarbu in local Himalayan dialects, sea buckthorn is a deciduous shrub that grows across Russia, Mongolia, China and some northern regions in India. It was used by the ancient Greeks as well as in early Chinese medicine to treat indigestion and skin problems. In India, it has been used in Amchi—the traditional medical disciple of Ladakh, for centuries. According to folklore, when Genghis Khan’s army was passing through Ladakh, they left some badly injured horses there to die. However, on their journey back, they saw the very same horses looking healthier than ever. When Khan asked the locals what the horses had eaten to restore their vitality, they pointed to the sea buckthorn berries. After hearing that the world’s greatest conqueror used these berries to improve the strength and immunity of his entire army, I only got more curious about its benefits.
When any plant, fruit or vegetable is packed with a remarkably high amount of nutrients per unit of volume, it is touted as a superfood. The nutrient profile of the sea buckthorn berry fits this definition pretty accurately because of its enviable stats: 190 bioactive compounds, 60 antioxidants, 20 minerals, amino acids as well as vitamins B, K, C, A and E. It is a powerhouse of carotenoids, xanthophylls, phenolics and flavonoids—basically stuff that does good shit for the body. It is known to reduce inflammation and cure cancers, slow the aging process, fix digestive issues, lower blood pressure, improve vision and fortify immunity.
My First Time
I first tasted this fruit in Mumbai’s wilderness-to-table restaurant, Masque. I was celebrating my anniversary with my husband, and our server brought out a palate cleanser popsicle that looked similar to the orange lolly of my childhood. On biting in, I tasted the tart sea buckthorn sorbet balanced with the natural sweet of carrots, and realised that the inside was stuffed with a spicy black pepper mouse. It made for a wonderful and highly memorable dish. Chef and co-founder Prateek Sadhu actually showed us the original plant which he had nicknamed “the Vitamin C tsunami” and talked about his foraging journey across Ladakh.
“Indian cuisine is not known for quality ingredients in the West and we, at Masque, are trying to change that,” Sadhu says. “I had first tasted this berry in 2009 during my stint at Noma in Copenhagen but while researching Himalayan ingredients, I realized it also grows in my own backyard. So I took an impromptu flight to Leh, got into a car and drove towards Nubra Valley. On the way, we started seeing the distinct, sunset-orange berries growing all over. Sea buckthorn is as native to Ladakh as it is to Denmark.” According to him, despite being a powerhouse of nutrients, the plant has not been given any culinary importance in India. Thus, he travels every year to Turtuk— the last village on the India-Pakistan border—to handpick this berry himself. Sea buckthorn grows freely in the wild in the Nubra Valley belt, and locals use the thorny bush for fencing their houses instead of nutrition. The kitchen at Masque has been doing extensive research and development on sea buckthorn and their upcoming menu will feature a sea buckthorn ice-cream with apricot chunks as well as a barramundi fillet cured with the acidic sea buckthorn juice.
Beyond the Bite
While a majority of Indians still don’t know about the Ladakhi gold berry, it has became somewhat known among the international beauty industry in the last couple of years for its incredible anti-aging properties. Google the plant name and you’ll see beauty bloggers raving about sea buckthorn oil. Bustle has called it “the next big thing in anti-aging”, and it is used in cult skincare products like former-model May Lindstrom’s The Youth Dew.
Earlier this year, while in Hong Kong, I discovered that my favorite Ayurvedic beauty brand, Purearth, had also launched a 100 percent pure sea buckthorn oil. Purearth is an ethical, artisanal beauty label and I spoke with the founder, Kavita Khosa, who is extremely particular about how she sources her ingredients from the Himalayas. She travels to Ladakh during harvest time to pick sea buckthorn berries and works with very small farmers. The produce is handled with jute (not plastic) and only the finest, ripest berries make it to their Ayurvedic beauty products.
“Sea buckthorn is good for all skin types,” says Khosa. “Studies have shown it works remarkably well for young skin with acne. It is also wonderful for dry or mature skin and for problems like rosacea, melasma, pigmentation and sun damage.” Khosa is all praises for the sea buckthorn plant and according to her, it also has benefits for the hair, eyes and wounds. One of her artisans brought in a two-year-old child who had a burn on his arm and when Khosa used sea buckthorn oil to heal it, the results were amazing. “The best way to use it is to directly drink the oil or apply it into the vulva for women or scrotum for men. That’s where our skin is the thinnest, has a lot of nerve endings, and thus there is percutaneous absorption.” The brand has launched another sea buckthorn product: A rose gold liquid highlighter which works as both skincare as well as makeup.
After speaking with Sadhu and Khosa, I was all set to fly to Leh and forage a bucketful of these berries myself to acquire a youthful glow. Then I found out that it’s not the just the berry that is being used to create these wonder products. A few companies are even using its protein-rich leaves to brew tea. M Prabakaran, founder and CEO of Sweetea, first heard of the berry in January this year, and started selling sea buckthorn leaf tea in April. “Very few Indians know about the sea buckthorn but I believe it is the right time people turn towards this plant which has so many benefits and is high in antioxidants and antimicrobial phytochemicals.” Another Kolkata-based company, Karma Kettle, uses its leaves in their ‘Karakoram’ tea blend for stress relief and sleep aid while TeaRaja (based in the US and India) uses them in its ‘Skin Glow Tea’ blend.
Organizations like the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and the Defence Research and Development Organization launched a major initiative to spread the cultivation of sea buckthorn to other high altitude deserts like Lahaul and Spiti. This has financially empowered the local communities in these regions since 2010 and is feeding an industry of sea buckthorn juices, oils and capsules, many of which are sadly exported outside the country.
This is where we tell you that instead of spending your ka-ching on that acai berry from Mexico or the matcha from Japan, you must give a shot to these desi powerhouses. Joining the list of Indian superfoods—from senna to moringa to turmeric—this wonderberry might just change your life.
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.