With summer in South Asia comes the fuss over mangoes. Each year passionate arguments are revived over which varietal – the northern langda, eastern himsagar or southern banganapalli – is the best, while on the western coast, markets get another little fresh fruit that is as healthful as any mango.
Known for its cooling properties, kokum has always been used in refreshing summer beverages, while its dried rind is a souring agent in curries. It is similar in theory to tamarind but with a unique flavour of its own.
These days, though, kokum is becoming a part of the culinary zeitgeist, finding its way into cocktails and appetisers at some of Mumbai’s and Delhi’s finest restaurants, such as Bombay Brasserie, O Pedro and Jamun. In salad dressings or topped with vodka and rock salt or as a seasoning for chips, chefs are experimenting with kokum in innovative ways.
“The fresh kokum fruit was an eye-opener to me,” said Hussain Shahzad, chef at O Pedro, a Goan restaurant in Mumbai, who ate the fruit for the first time in 2017. Until Shahzad began learning the nuances of Goan food, he always thought of kokum (known as bhirand in Konkani) as the dried, packaged ingredient you bought at stores. “I had never even seen the fresh thing till I tried it at the house of a Goan lady in Vasco who was teaching me home-cooking techniques,” he said. “I opened her fridge, saw a mango and an unfamiliar fruit. I asked her if I could eat the mango, but she encouraged me to eat the fresh kokum instead. It was a burst of freshness, juicy and acidic.”
At O Pedro, kokum has become a go-to ingredient to keep offering diners something new. In many cases, kokum juice replaces the acid component in a recipe. “You mix it with some soy, garlic and onions and it’s a light dressing,” said Shahzad. “We are also making powdered seasoning with it by dehydrating and crushing the rinds. We then sprinkle this powder over our dried pork skin as soon as it comes out of the fryer, with some chilli powder and coarse sea salt and serve it as bar eats. We also use [kokum] in our curries, which is the most common use in Goan Hindu households. At lunch, we offer a simple solkadi, made using kokum and coconut milk because it is a great digestive.”
Chef Rahul Gomes Pereira of Jamun is Goan and grew up with easy access to kokum, which is one of his favourite summer fruits. “Drinking a chilled or hot solkadi is still a favourite,” said Pereira. “At home we also used to make dough for puris with kokum water, which made the puris deep red in colour. We use kokum quite a bit in our restaurant, but you can’t really rely on Delhi’s supply. The quality is nothing like the stuff you get in Mumbai or Goa. Fortunately, I have family in Goa, so I get huge bags of kokum sent from there.”
One of Jamun’s more popular cocktails uses kokum and was Pereira’s creation. “We made a kokum syrup and were thinking of various ways to utilise it,” he said. “That’s where the daiquiri came from. It has been a huge hit. We had originally conceptualised a tamarind daiquiri, but the kokum – a more diverse souring agent due to its inherent sweetness – worked better so we decided to do a tamarind margarita and a kokum daiquiri. Our salads with prawns and a kokum vinaigrette is also very well received.”
According to the Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices by PN Ravindran, kokum is one of the sources of the raw drug vrikshamla, a herb referred to in Ayurveda for its ability to help control cholesterol and triglycerides. Also popular in Assam, where it is called thekera, it is referred to as “fish tamarind” for how well it pairs with seafood.
Growing up in Namrup, a town in the south-eastern part of Assam, Gitikia Saikia’s memories of childhood summers are linked with this drink. She remembers rushing home from school to chilled glasses of sharbat made using either gondhoraj lemon – a variant found in that region – or kokum. “Campa Cola, Pepsi and these sugary carbonated drinks were not an option for us and our parents wouldn’t allow us to drink these, so thekera, or kokum, would be our go-to fruit for the summer drinks,” said Saikia, an Assamese home cook known for her pop-up food events in Mumbai.
Apart from flavouring chilled drinks, the dried rind of kokum is also used in Assam as souring agent in fish curries, but without the coconut milk that is a trademark of Goan seafood curries. “It was always used in summer lunches, so this curry is a very thin, light, watery yet flavourful fish curry,” said Saikia. “For such curries, the kokum-soaked water is used to make a non-spicy fish curry using any fried fish and a tempering of paanch phoron, a five-spice mix. We have often used to make chutneys as well, as well as a medicine since it is cooling. So, we use kokum to [treat] digestive problems.”
Inherently a South Asian fruit, kokum is now becoming popular in the US, not as a food ingredient, but as a beauty product. The butter extracted by refining kokum kernels is used in place of the more expensive cocoa butter to treat dry skin, infected pores and other skin remedies and is even used in hair conditioners and skincare products.