Raktsey Karpo: Experts Weigh In On Ladakh's GI-Tagged Apricot

The apricot blossom festival is in full swing in various parts of Ladakh; usually held annually towards the start of spring, the festival celebrates Ladakh’s most prized produce, apricots, which was introduced to the region by Chinese traders via the Silk Route. The region's high altitude, fertile soil, and temperate climate offer optimal conditions for the growth of apricot trees, which have an become integral part of the landscape, with their blossoms signalling the arrival of spring and their fruits celebrated in festivals and culinary traditions.

In 2022 Ladakh got its first GI tag for the Raktsey Karpo apricot, which is also widely believed to be the sweetest apricot in the world. Ladakh grows roughly thirty different kinds of apricots; the apricots of the region are mainly classified into two broad categories based on kernel taste and colour. 

Fruits with bitter kernels are referred to as ‘Khante’ and those with sweet kernels are called ‘Nyarmo’ meaning sweet. The apricots with white seed stones is called Raktsey Karpo (Rakstey means seed, karpo means white), while those with brown seed stones are called Raktsey Nakpo or Nyarmo (black seeded).

“We usually soak it and serve it as a dessert,” says Chef Nilza Wangmo, who started the all-women-run Alchi kitchen in Ladakh. “That’s one of the primary desserts we have locally; I think we’ve always been told that it’s the commonest way to consume it. However, I soak it in rum with vanilla, it gives it more flavour and it absorbs flavours better because it's so tender.”

This ‘fating’ where dried whole fruit is cooked in water and reduced to make a naturally sweet dessert, is a healing dish during harsh winters; although experts believe using Raktsey Karpo for making preserves is quite a waste, considering its intense sweetness, which is its biggest USP.

The Desert ‘Rose’

Ladakhi cuisine expert Kunzes Angmo who runs the popular preserve label Artisanal Alchemy says, “For us, in Ladakh, dessert is usually fruit! That’s our sugar source, for dessert, we usually consume fruit, fresh and dried.”

“The best way to experience Raktsey Karpo is when it’s fresh and ripe, or you can sun-dry it. But cooking with it is not the best way to consume it. In fact, its mode of preservation is also sun-drying. It’s quite prized locally; so it’s a ritual for families where it is shared and consumed by family members every season,” Angmo shares. 

Ladakh is the largest producer of apricots in India, with a total production of 15,789 tonnes per year, it accounts for 62% of the apricot production in the country. The high altitude in this region plays a crucial role in enhancing the sweetness of apricots. Ladakhi apricots are late ripeners. This fruit is typically harvested between June and July around the world; but In Ladakh, it ripens late due to the dry climate. Since the fruit does not really ripen before mid-August, its sales do not often clash with other global exports.

“We can’t really do much to the apricot, to make it grow. It largely depends on the climate and the terroir,” breaks down Angmo. “At times, it’s impossible to identify this apricot unless it’s sun-dried! A common way to identify Raktsey Karpk is by the tree. Like roses, Raktsey Karpo has to be grafted. The apricot doesn’t grow as a particular variety, it has to be grafted into the Raktsey Karpo variant from an existing Raktsey Karpo tree.”

The knowledge system in place

Speaking about its gourmet potential Wangmo points out that Raktsey Karpo’s sweetness is more nuanced than people think. “Its kernel is also very sweet, it’s sweeter than almond! Most people eat the fruit but aren’t sure about the seed. I believe that when you eat the fruit you should eat the seed as well, it does not harm the stomach. It, in fact, balances your system.”

So, have things changed for the word’s sweetest apricot post its GI tag? Reports suggest besides its positioning as a prized export, its relevance in the local region has also taken a leap. “People living in the northern parts are also trying to grow it now, even though the climate is much harsher there. Now we see it being sold everywhere; especially in West Ladakh, you can spot women and children selling it roadside. 

Angmo insists that despite its growing popularity on the world stage, it’s the indigenous knowledge system that sustains this production. 

"Ladakh is a trans-Himalayan region and has a different continental plate than the rest of the country. What grows in Ladakh is very similar to the produce found in Eurasia and parts of Central Asia, because it has a similar terroir," Angmo says.

"We can only what the earth can sustain in terms of both plant and animal diversity. There's an indigenous knowledge system which is quite key. How to graft them, how to grow them, and the know-how about altitude or temperature. So this knowledge relating to food and production, we have developed it over the years which keeps the ecosystem going," she says.