By Shoma Abhyankar 3rd August 2023Traditionally thought to have cooling properties, India’s kokum extract makes for an electrolyte-balancing drink that offers a natural, refreshing way to fend off the summer heat. S
I scribbled with a chalkboard on a small board in Maharashtra, India; there was a listing of the items that could be purchased at the tiny restaurant I went to in the scorching midday heat.
A deep, dark red sherbet (a traditional Indian drink made with spices and fruits) quickly lifted me from thirst and fatigue. My drink was made from the fruits of Kokum, a tropical evergreen tree belonging to the mangosteen family. It’s native to Konkan,, the western coast region stretching from Maharashtra to states like Goa in Goa and Karnataka.
A key ingredient in the local cuisine due to its acidic qualities Kokum is to Konkan the same way tamarind is in the states to the south of India, in addition to providing a unique tangy flavor and the ability to rehydrate drinks such as sherbet ( see recipe below) that have been utilized for centuries to combat heatstroke. Using this traditional wisdom may provide an energizing and healthy alternative when trying to fight the present flood of heat waves worldwide.
“For centuries, the tribal communities have used agal, or the extract from the [kokum] fruit, as a souring and colouring agent in curries, gravies and fish preparations,” noted the food scholar Kurush Dalal. “They have also utilised it for medicinal properties.”
According to Ayurveda, the ancient Indian natural system of treatment is derived from the Sanskrit words Ayur (life) as well as Veda (knowledge). The kokum fruit is said to have many health benefits and medicinal benefits. An antioxidant-rich source, B-complex vitamins and B-complex vitamins as well as potassium and magnesium, Kokum is used for digestive aids and to treat diarrhoea and flatulence and skin rashes and sores.
While widely used by locals, Kokum is grown but on a very small scale (Credit Dinodia Photos/Alamy)
“It is traditionally also considered to be a natural coolant and helpful in beating the summer heat,” Dalal said. Dalal.
“Kokum, rich in essential vitamins and minerals, makes for an excellent electrolyte-balancing drink on mixing with some sugar and water,” explained Dr Trupti Bhole, professor at Bhartiya Vidyapeeth Ayurveda College in Pune. “It prevents dehydration and dryness due to summer heat.”
Konkanis take it as extracts in refreshing and energizing drinks such as the kokum sherbet that I tried (which was mixed with roasted sugar and cumin powder) and Solkadhi ( see recipe below). It’s a rich pink drink made by mixing the extract of Kokum and coconut milk.
The kokum tree that is fed by rain blooms in March. The red-purple fruit is harvested between the time of April and May. After gathering the rind, which is fibrous, the lemon-sized, ripe berry is separated from the large seeds and then dried for 6 to 8 days, which causes the skin to become almost black. The skin dried hull is simmered in water and then reduced to create concentrated syrup by adding sugar to food or drinks. The oil extracted from seeds called kokum butter is an organic emollient used as a base ingredient in cosmetics.
The red-purple kokum fruit is picked between the time of April and May (Credit Dinodia Photos/Alamy)
Although the local population extensively uses Kokum, it’s grown in a tiny size, mainly on plantations producing coconut and mango. A study in 2010 found that only 1,000 hectares of Kokum were planted in Konkan. But, due to the increasing demand for Kokum, the forest department in Konkan is slowly planting more trees along roadsides and in areas of forested land.
Now, the fruit is also making its way to the spotlight of cuisine, from local, small-scale eateries to higher-end establishments across India.
“Not much attention was given for its cultivation initially; however, it is getting its due gradually,” Dalal added. Dalal. “What grew wild and was used as an ingredient in home cooking mostly is now becoming gourmet. Chefs are experimenting with the sourness and rich colour of Kokum.”
Goa Portuguesa, the award-winning restaurant, opened around 1988 and was established in Mumbai. It has a more recent location in Dubai and offers Goan and Portuguese specialties made using the Kokum. “Kokum is used very often in Goan food. Our restaurant has Kokum in pickles, jams and chutneys besides the traditional dishes like solkadi [a cold coconut milk and kokum soup], seafood sukke [clams and prawns cooked in a thick coconut and kokum gravy], mushroom xacuti [mushrooms cooked in a kokum-coconut gravy] or shark ambottik [shark cooked in tangy coconut-kokum gravy],” Chef-owner Deepa Awchat. “The kokum gives beautiful colour to the thick coconut gravy and its sourness subdues the typical seafood odour.”