I had my first taste of kokum where everybody in Bombay has it — at a railway station. It was my second day in the city. I was trying to make sense of the chaos, had had my initial experiences with the local trains, and was being slowly sous-vided by the humid summer heat, when, in the subway under CST terminus, I spotted a bunch of shops selling fruit juices. What caught my eye were two tubs, up front in every shop, one filled with a smoky grey liquid while the other was a dark magenta, paddles stirring them constantly, as tempting condensation collected on the sides. I recognised the lemonade. The other, I was informed, was kokum sherbet. I asked for a glass.
My Maharashtrian aunt enthusiastically set off to prepare sol kadhi at home when I sincerely puppy-eyed for it, years later. I had been in Mumbai for half a decade by then, had tasted as much of the local affair as I could, and got introduced to the sol kadhi during a college project on the city’s gomantaks (lunch homes). This delightful, summery digestif, made with kokum juice, coconut milk, coriander, and spices, is a creamy-tangy-spicy drink that pairs well with Maharashtrian lunches, or had solo, by yours truly.
If I had to tell you what Mumbai tastes like, kokum would be one of the ingredients. The vibrant crimson colour of the fruit and the subsequent juice is lasciviously lavni — seductive and alluring, and a touch of tramp. Along with the thecha, kokum is arguably the most emblematic flavour of the state. The flavour isn’t overpoweringly sour like lemon, nor pungently acidic like vinegar. The tart and acidity strikes a wonderful balance in the kokum. This berry fruit, found along the Western ghats of Maharashtra, Goa, and Karnataka, pairs easily with fish and seafood, adding the much-required oomph to the smack-in-the-face heat of the region’s cuisine, blends into drinks, and finds prime spot with the sol kadhi. The punch served at railway stations in the state, is a dilution made with concentrated kokum syrup, which is sold in the state and in Goa in plastic cans, and looks like fake blood for a Halloween party.
For Bengalis, sour is not a dominant flavour. Sour and tart is generally set aside for chutneys, morabbas, and pickles. Even then, it is sweet-and-sour. Sour does not find importance in dals or curries. Another aunt of mine makes a mean sour-spicy mash, with the flesh of a kot bael or wood apple. We also make a thin, syrupy end-of-meal chutney, with raw mangoes, Aamer Tok, flavoured with mustard, to aid digestion during the summers. The Bengali Aam Porar Shorbot, pulped roasted raw mango sherbet, is also a sweet-sour-spicy blend. The sour profile is accepted for its cooling and medicinal value, but the flavour is not necessarily celebrated. Heck, even our favourite kind of raw mango is the kaancha-mithey (raw-ripe, a sort of in-betweener, when the mango isn’t completely ripe, but has shed the acidity of its raw stage) variety. Sour, by itself, is tolerated in mild quantities.
A few years back, when my best friend, who is Malayali, was getting married, I pestered her mother to teach me how to cook a traditional Meen curry, or Kerala fish curry. One of the ingredients used in the curry, a dried sour fruit, piqued my interest. Everybody tried to explain what it was, how it wasn’t tamarind, but still sour in nature. I tried it out. It wasn’t tamarind. It reminded me of kokum. In Kerala, Karnataka, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, a fruit of the same Garcinia family, kudampuli or brindleberry or Malabar tamarind, is extremely popular in flavouring curries, and is used in herbal medicine. It tastes very similar to the kokum, and helps in balancing out the fiesty heat of the food, especially in Malayali and Sri Lankan cooking. It is used in Thailand in the popular Kaeng Som, a sour fish curry. The south east Asian countries generally use palm sugar to balance out the tart, while Kerala and Sri Lanka use coconut milk.
Although Bengal does not see the presence of the fruit, Assam uses another variety of the Garcinia family, called thekera. A similar fruit, used for similar purposes in fish and seafood curries, the thekera is the hero of all the Tenga curries or sour curries. The Masor Thekera Tenga or sour fish curry, made with Anja or Aru fish, are soupy fish-and-veggie curries to accompany rice. The Assamese also make a Thekera Tenga sherbet with a dilution of the fruit’s pulp and seasonings. While the kokum is mostly pulped and juiced while still fresh, the kudampuli and the thekera are generally sun-dried and stored, and soaked in water to bloom before usage.
I feel kokum is an acquired taste. All the varieties of this berry family deserve to be celebrated, and showcased as a part of mainstream food experiments. The kokum can replace quite a few berries for coulis and compotes in our desserts, as an ingredient in salad dressings, as drizzles for seafood grills, in palate-cleansing sorbets, and definitely in jus and vinaigrettes. I am making a strong case for the kokum. Are all the chefs listening?