On a sour note
What when you crave khaati-mithi Surti dal in Delhi? A case of hunting for kokum in the capital, and settling for its North Indian cousins
For the move to India's capital after having lived all my life in Mumbai, I did thorough homework: pyaaz not kanda; dhania not kothmir; aloo not batata. I even accepted jugni for zucchini. But Delhi manages to throw your way an out of syllabus googly.
It comes in the form of a blank face when I ask Mr Pal, a grocery store owner in Kalkaji, for a packet of kokum. "Woh toh hum nahin rakhte." I am the Gujarati who likes her khaati-meethi Surti dal. How do I make it without kokum? And what about someone who wishes to stir up a pot of sol kadi or thandu sherbat?
New friends and their families help by suggesting souring agents used in North Indian homestyle cooking. Suman aunty—Suman Lakhani to the rest of the world—is a 62-year-old homemaker from Friend's Colony. "Try amchur [dried mango powder] or anardana [dried, pounded pomegranate seeds]." She makes a mean jeera aloo, with a final sprinkle of anardana to give the dish a grainy texture and well-rounded sour touch. Amchur works better for dals. "I use imli water, but only in sambhar or to make date chutney," she explains.
Mumbai author Saee Koranne Khandekar stuffs kokum rinds with sugar to prepare a sweet kokum sherbet concentrate
Greater Kailash-based home chef Rajan Bedi recommends curd and tomatoes. "The smaller, desi varieties are best. Food made every day in Punjabi homes uses tomato and curd in most dishes. Curd makes the curries dense and adds a balanced tartness. Meat and amchur don't go well. So, we marinate meats in curd. We add anardana to missi roti. Indian cooking, after all, is a marriage of flavours," he thinks.
Known for his laal maas in foodie circles, Bedi uses powdered and dried kachri, a wild variety of kheera or cucumber, not only to tenderise the meat, but also add a tangy finish. "My kachri chutney is finger-licking good," he claims. While experiments with new souring agents are underway in my kitchen, the sweet and sour versatility of kokum makes its absence felt and the mouth waters until someone from "mayanagri"—as an autowalla in Dilli called Mumbai—can carry some on flight.
Grown abundantly along the coast of Maharashtra and Konkan, the kokum has many uses. Almost all parts of this mangosteen fruit are utilised. Mumbai-based writer and culinary consultant Saee Koranne Khandekar says the freshest batch is available in the summers.
Homemaker Suman Lakhani finishes off aloo jeera with a sprinkle of anardana. Pic/Nishad Alam
"Kokum looks like plum and should stain your fingers purple." Khandekar cuts them into hemispheres, scoops out the seeds and fills the rinds with sugar to make the concentrate for kokum sherbet. She replaces the sugar with salt to make agal before binning them in glass jars and leaving it in the sun. "Agal, the unsweetened concentrate, is used as a souring agent in sol kadi and fish curries. The leftover skin is washed, salted and dried to make amsool or kokum for curry," she adds.
Kokan Bazaar in Sena Bhavan, Dadar, is a speciality store that offers products made by women from the Konkan belt. Nayan Khadapkar stocks traditional sherbet, agal and kokum butter on the racks. After extracting concentrate for agal and sherbet, the seeds are dried and ground. They are then put to boil to make a butter that works wonderfully as moisturiser for cracked feet.
"This can replace oil in cooking too as it is great for digestion and diabetes," says Khadapkar. When mummy comes visiting, she brings along pansy purple-hued Lonavla kokum, a sought-after variety where the entire fruit with the seeds is dried. No prizes for guessing what I served for dinner.
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