Two recipes for kokum, an ingredient integral to the cuisine of western India, defined by a mellow, almost floral tart taste
On my trips to Mumbai years ago, I would always pick up my stock of dried kokum (Garcinia indica) from the neighbourhood store since I would not find it easily in Bengaluru. This was before kokum’s popularity spread beyond its indigenous regions. A quick search on Amazon tells me that rind, halved dried fruits, syrup, juice and even the butter, are now all available at the click of a button.
Kokum grows wild in the forests of the Western Ghats and highland regions of peninsular India. The ripe version resembles the fruit mangosteen—they belong to the same genus.
The fact that it grows wild in forests, and the harvest season and shelf life (around five days in ambient temperature) are short, means that the collection and transportation of kokum presents logistical problems, leading to a lot of wastage. That its harvest coincides with the mango harvest season deters farmers from growing kokum on a large scale—the market for it is less lucrative.
Owing to its health benefits and popularity, however, kokum is gradually gaining favour with farmers. According to Ayurveda, kokum has cooling and digestive properties. It is rich in hydroxycitric acid (HCA), a chemical that is linked to weight loss and is, therefore, a part of many weight-loss formulations. The bright red rind of the ripe fruit can be used as a natural food colour. It is a rich source of anthocyanins, which are known antioxidants.
Kokum is generally sold in three forms for culinary uses. The first is the ripe fruit, which is rare except in areas where it is grown. The second is the rind of the fruit, salted and dried. The third is the halved fruit dried with the seeds, membranes, which are the centre fibres and spongy parts that hold the seeds together, and the rind. The entire fruit is sourer than just the rind. Apart from the sun-dried fruit and rind, kokum is also sold as a salted juice (agal) and a syrup (amrut).
Due to the short shelf life of the fresh fruit, value-added products are important to make it economically viable for the growers.
I learnt of kokum butter, for instance, when I attended a soap-making workshop a few years ago. Oil extracted from the seeds is processed into butter. Its non-greasy, lightweight and vitamin-rich properties make it a useful ingredient for skincare, such as body butters and foot creams. It is also easily absorbed by the skin. Kokum butter has a higher melting point than cocoa butter, making it a sought-after ingredient in the chocolate industry.
Sol kadhi in Goan and coastal Maharashtrian cuisine is a perfect melange of sour, sweet, spicy flavours with acidic undertones. This pink-coloured beverage has a mix of kokum extract, coconut milk, garlic and chilli. It can also be served as a lighter version, futi kadhi, without coconut milk.
Kokum sharbat is prepared by mixing the sweetened kokum concentrate (amrut) with water for a refreshing summer drink. Black salt or roasted cumin powder is sometimes added for extra flavour. The rustic drink has inspired several cocktails in combination with white spirits like vodka and gin.
A Goan vegetable dish called sola bhende is lady’s finger (bhindi), cooked along with kokum rinds and spices. Kokum also replaces tamarind in the preparation of a Gujarati-style sweet and sour dal.
A lot of savoury Indian dishes use a souring agent. Kokum is the favoured souring agent in Goa, parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Gujarat.
There is a tendency to compare kokum with tamarind. Both have their own importance in their respective regional cuisines. Both, while used for their acidic properties, have completely different flavour profiles. Tamarind has a sharper tanginess, while kokum is defined by a more mellow, almost floral tart taste. Use kokum in curries, dals and beverages and add a unique flavour from Goa to your dishes.
KOKUM MOONG DAL
4-5 kokum pieces
1/2 cup moong dal (yellow, split)
1/4 cup coconut milk
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp coconut oil
2 green chillies, sliced
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp ginger, grated
A pinch of asafoetida
1 tbsp coriander, finely chopped
Soak kokum in 1/4 cup hot water for 30 minutes. Squeeze it to extract the essence into the water. Pass through a sieve placed over a bowl, pressing down on the solids. Discard the solids.
Wash moong dal and cook with one-and-a-half cups of water, until soft. Whisk it to get a smooth consistency.
In a pan, combine the cooked dal,kokum extract, coconut milk and salt. Bring to a gentle simmer.
Heat the oil in a small pan. Fry the green chillies, cumin seeds and grated ginger. Once the seeds splutter, stir in asafoetida and transfer the tempering over the dal. Garnish with chopped coriander. Serve with rice.
5-6 kokum pieces
8-10 small-sized bitter gourds
2 tbsp coconut oil
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp ginger, grated
1 tbsp jaggery, grated
1 tsp red chilli powder
2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp salt
1-2 tbsp fresh coconut
1 tbsp coriander, chopped
Make kokum extract as detailed in the previous recipe.
Slice off the two ends of the bitter gourds. Slice lengthwise into quarters. Place this in a bowl with 3-4 tsp water. Cover and microwave for 5-6 minutes or until tender. Alternatively, steam in a pressure cooker. Drain excess water.
Heat oil in a pan. Fry cumin seeds and grated ginger. Once the seeds splutter, add the bitter gourd along with kokum extract, jaggery, chilli powder, coriander powder, turmeric and salt. Cook this on a low flame for 7-8 minutes until all the liquid dries out and the bitter gourd is well coated with spices.
Garnish with coconut and coriander. Serve with kokum dal and steamed rice.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.