January 5, 2013

Right now I feel like Susan Feniger has shoved me down the rabbit hole after kokum.

I had flagged “Curried Lentils with Indian Dried Plums,” in her book, “Susan Feniger’s Street Food.” It involved other ingredients I already knew, such as black mustard seeds and curry leaves. It was outstanding and, as soon as I did the tiniest bit of googling, I discovered that it was also misnamed. There are not plums in this dish, but kokum.

Kokum 2

Kokum is its own kind of dried fruit, related to a mangosteen. Very quickly I blew through the very few American sites that mentioned kokum and got to the Indian ones. There were a handful of articles. Kokum is used, I read, like tamarind and and amchoor for sourness. The comparison wasn’t as helpful to me as I would have liked. I have never used tamarind. I have amchoor but I don’t reach for it often.

There were a lot of recipes for summer drinks with kokum and chiles, many fish dishes and dals. Their untranslated ingredient lists puzzled me (dahi? jeera? jaggery?). I could look up each individually (curds, cumin, raw sugar) but Indian dishes can have north of 20 ingredients and going through all of these Indian cooking sites that way would get tiresome. Also, I am not great at reading recipes for Indian cooking and knowing what the dish will taste like when it’s done.

After a couple of sessions with the Indian food sites, I stopped reading them. I took the kokum out of the top shelf of the cabinet and put one out on the counter. I smelled it a few times a day and tried to imagine what to do with it. Susan Feniger’s recipe used the kokum so well that I had hard time imagining anything else. Kokum was falling faster than I was down the rabbit hole. I didn’t think I could catch up.

Fruit-sour is a very common savory element. Think of the lime in guacamole, the lemon vinaigrette, the applesauce with latkes. Even if kokum is new to me, I hoped, my decades with lemon and apples would inform me on the kokum.

Today I needed to make vegan refried beans. This is something that I can make out of my head. The ingredients are all familiar to me. I know it so well I’ve never written it down. In it, lime juice is the fruit-sour.

All fruit-sours are not the same, but they all occupy a similar place. So I thought, why not put the kokum in the refried beans. Even if it was a total failure, there would be no particular loss. As I cooked I took notes, and it slowly became clear to me that Susan Feniger’s curried lentils and my refried beans are parallel, almost ingredient for ingredient:

masoor dal = pinto beans
black mustard seeds and curry leaves = epazote
onion = onion
arbol chiles = New Mexico chiles
kokum = lime

My vegan refried beans recipe ends with lime juice. Instead of finishing my beans with lime, I started them with the kokum. The result was that the beans were much deeper and richer. Lime is wonderful and bright, but it’s one-dimensional. The kokum is less bright but more complex, tangling with the epaozte and the chiles in a way that the lime could never hope to do. 

Mangoes so easily migrated from South Asia to Mexico many generations ago because their climates are so similar. I can’t quite imagine Mexican food without it. Until now, the kokum has stayed firmly in Indian cooking, but maybe it’s time to bring another fruit from India to the Americas.

18 pieces dried kokum
1 T dried epazote
1 large yellow onion cut in 8ths
2 dry New Mexico chile pods, tops cut off and seeds shaken out
1.5 c dried (unsoaked) pinto beans
swirl of cooking oil and then another later

Throw everything in a pot and cook at high pressure for 40 minutes and let the pressure come down naturally, or until the beans are soft. If there is a lot of water, pour most of it out. 

Fish out the chiles and let them cool enough to handle. With the flat (not sharp) edge of a knife, scrape the flesh away from the skins. Chop the flesh a little. Discard the skins and mix the flesh back into the beans. 

Salt it and heat again and let the liquid cook out more. Swirl in some more olive oil. Mash some of the beans with a potato masher.

For next time: chop onion smaller, chop kokum a little. Soak the beans so the cooking time is less.

2 Responses to “Kokum”

  1. ahimsa Says:

    I came to this blog through a very circuitous route but how nice to find this recipe. I love how it looks.

    I have loads of Indian recipes (my husband is from India) so I’m familiar with many of the ingredients you listed. But I’ve never cooked with Kokum. Very interesting! Thanks for the idea.

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