Why So Many Strawberries Come From One Town In India

When you think about Indian food, a few things probably come to the top of your mind. There's the tandoori chicken and the samosas, then there's the dahl, the aloo chaat, and, of course, the naan and paratha you dip into it all. But there's one simple fruit that seems to slip even the best of our minds, despite India being home to what many claim is some of the very best of its kind available: strawberries. 

In Mahabaleshwar, a charming hill station in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra, a state in India's western peninsular region, an ideal, natural climate for growing strawberries exists, allowing farmers to grow big, bright, sweet, tart, and juicy strawberries completely organically. Every December through February, locals as far as Mumbai venture out of the city and travel 4,500 feet up into the Western Ghats to get to the site of the strawberry farms while the berries are in peak season. 

There, guests can take guided tours through the fields and even indulge in picking a few for themselves to take home and give to friends. Even though most of India's strawberries come from the region, the farms themselves are a sight to see — if not for the quaint towns and lush tropical landscapes, for the strawberry cream, a dessert made from freshly whipped cream, strawberry icecream, and Mahabaleshwar strawberry purée layered between slices of sweet, bright red berries.

The history of Mahabaleshwar's strawberries

Temperate climates are thought to be the best for strawberry farming. But that didn't stop Mahabaleshwar, a small, hilltop community in the tropical forests of Maharashtra, from becoming known as "The Strawberry Garden of India." So, how did this happen? Much like masala chai, it all started with British colonization. During the mid-1800s, the British took advantage of all the extra labor that was available in India, more specifically from the country's prison inmates, and even more specifically those at the historic Thane Jail in Maharashtra. 

In 1884, the jail's superintendent found that the strawberry cultivations — which, up until then, were thought to be limited to growing in the northern hills of India — were thriving right there in the western peninsula, and in the prison gardens, no less. Knowing that, farmers in Mahabaleshwar — the hill station town that the British escaped to during India's sweltering summers — started planting the berries there, too. 

Today, 85% of India's strawberries come from Mahabaleshwar, half of which are consumed right there in town. Meanwhile, the rest make their way to cities like Bombay, Poona, Belgaum, and every other city across India that the farms' visitors send them to. More than just a snack, strawberries have become a part of the town's social life. Strawberry festivals, farm tours, and picking events draw people in throughout the season. The strawberry desserts are just the cherry — or the strawberry, as it were — on top of it all.