Lemon in the Oriental Traditions

By Assad Bhuglah

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Lemon is part of the Mauritian folklore. Cyril Ramdoo’s sega “alouda lemonade vanne dan bazar” has immortalized the typical image of a routine activity at the Central Market of Port Louis where about thousands of people come to re-energize themselves with the local beverage. Street-vendors also positioned themselves with lemon-water at strategic locations to help thirsty travellers to beat the tropical heat.  By doing so, they have been unknowingly contributing to mitigate the effects of some serious diseases. The artisanal or home-made lemon-drink is the cheapest beverage that common people can afford to buy. For quite long time it has been a tradition to serve Sherbet flavoured with lemon to guests at home and during important occasions like Iftaar, Eid, Milad and other social events. Today, much of this tradition is replaced by industrially produced beverages. Among the varieties of lemon that are highly prized in Mauritius is the “limon Rodrigue” which is distinguishable by its tiny size and high concentration of juice. The usage of lemon is widespread in Mauritius; but this article will refrain from covering the superstitious practices associated with this fruit.

The origin of the word "lemon" comes from the Arabic laymūn or līmūn, and from the Persian līmūn, a generic term for citrus fruit. However, lemons are thought to have first grown in Assam and northern Myanmar. The very first uses for the lemon in the Mediterranean were as an ornamental plant in early Islamic gardens.  The first clear literary evidence of the lemon tree in any language dates from the early tenth-century Arabic work by Qustus al-Rumi in his book on farming. At the end of the twelfth century, Ibn Jami’, the personal physician to the great Muslim leader Salauddin, wrote a treatise on the lemon, after which it is mentioned with greater frequency in the Mediterranean. Lemons’ serious health benefits were also propagated in earlier times by prominent scholars and physicians like Ibn Qayyim and Ibn Masawayh in the treatment of diarrhea, hemorrhoids and depression and were even used as an antidote for poisons. The Crusades in the 11th century brought the plant into Europe, and it made its first appearance in the West in the late 1400s.

Egyptians of the fourteenth century knew of the lemon. Most peasants drank a date-and-honey beverage mixed with lemon. Along the Egyptian Mediterranean coast, people drank kashkab, a drink made of fermented barley and mint, rue, black pepper, and citron leaf.  It appears that the all-American summer drink, lemonade, may have had its origin in medieval Egypt. Although the lemon originates farther to the east, and lemonade may very well have been invented in one of the eastern countries, the earliest written evidence of lemonade comes from Egypt. The first reference to the lemon in Egypt is in the chronicles of the Persian poet and traveller Nasir-i-Khusraw (1003-1061), who left a valuable account of life in Egypt under the Fatamid Caliph al-Mustansir (1035-1094). The trade in lemon juice was quite considerable by 1104.  Documents in the archive of Cairo dating back to 10-13 centuries, reveal that the medieval Jewish community in Cairo concocted bottles of lemon juice, qatarmizat, with lots of sugar which were consumed locally and exported.

Turkey has a long established tradition of using “limon kolonyası,” lemon cologne: an antibacterial concoction of fragrance, water, and alcohol. While rose, lavender, and even hazelnut colognes exist, it is the lemon version that Turks sprinkle abundantly to clean diners’ hands before or after a meal, to welcome a guest arriving after a voyage, and to revive someone after fainting. In India and Pakistan, it is an old tradition to drink fresh lemon juice, enhanced with sugar and salt, to beat the heat. to drink lemon juice enhanced with sugar and salt to beat the heat.to drink lemon juice enhanced with sugar and salt to beat the heat.to drink lemon juice enhanced with sugar and salt to beat the heat.

In Cape Town, South Africa it is a tradition dating more than hundreds of years for Muslim women to assemble on the occasion of Yaum-un-Nabi and cut lemon tree leaves, scent them with rose water and then fold them in wrapping paper or small pieces of fabric before giving them to men as part of a tradition known as “rampies sny”. While cutting the leaves, women recite praises in Arabic for Allah and Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w). This tradition stems from the Indonesian and Malaysian community that arrived in the Cape with Dutch colonisers as from the mid-1600s. It is a cultural expression of the Malay Muslims, and not a religious obligation. The purpose of this activity is to enhance fragrance and pleasant scent of lemon.

Lemon water is found to be very good for health. Traditional Chinese medicine has highlighted the benefits of lemon for centuries. High in antioxidants and vitamin C, lemon is a superstar fruit for myriad health complaints and even for weight loss purposes. Lemon is a natural astringent and a “master cleanser” of the body. When consumed regularly, lemon juice can help to stimulate elimination in the digestive system and help purify the liver by removing by-products and waste matter. It is a common knowledge now that digestion has a key role in a healthy weight loss program and its daily elimination is essential.  Regularly consuming warm water with freshly squeezed lemon will help to promote regular and healthy bowel movements. Mauritians are heavy consumers of biryani and greasy food. As it is a Sunnah to use the right hand in eating food, it takes two or three rounds of washing to remove the greasy or fatty elements from the hand. But if you plunge your hand in warm water mixed with lemon juice, the grease will detach from your hand instantly. Now imagine what would be the effect of a full plate of biryani churning in your belly!. Just imagine the health benefits of drinking a warm cup of lemon tea after having consumed a tasty but fatty biryani. It will act as blood purifier and cleansing agent for your bowl.

Recent studies have shown that drinking half-cup of lemon juice could protect against calcium stones in the kidney. It soothes a sore throat when taken with honey. It can stop an itch when it comes to poison ivy or insect bites, by rubbing lemon juice on the affected area.   Studies have supported the anticancer activity of citrus liminoids, compounds that protect human cells from damage that can lead to the formation of cancer cells. In addition to vitamin C, lemons offer 80 milligrams of potassium that helps human body stay strong and nimble. Drinking a lemon juice mixture can help bring fever down faster. However, there are potential health risks for those with gastro-esophageal reflux disease who may experience an increase in symptoms such as heartburn and regurgitation when consuming highly acidic foods such as citrus fruit; however, individual reactions vary.

 

Lemon can multitask and serve many purposes, both for culinary and non-culinary purposes. Apart from its beneficial role in health maintenance, lemon has a big demand for pharmacological and industrial usages, cleaning agents, perfumery, body care, home care, preserving and tenderizing meat, insect repellant etc. Lemon happens to be one of the world's most widely consumed tropical fruits, and recently the demand for this fruit has outstripped supply.

 

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