I love food, certainly. But sometimes I think what attracts me to cooking that it feels so much like a scientific experiment. Next to languages, science was easily my one of my favourite subject, especially chemistry. (Actually I liked everything but civics, I’m such a nerd that way!) I still vividly remember the countless times I stood at the door of the lab at school, my nose stuck to the glass as I gazed forlornly at the shiny lab tables and rows of coloured bottles on them that were, sadly, off-limits for me in primary and lower secondary school. In India, almost always (unless you move around a lot) you got to the same school from kindergarten through 10th standard (that would be 10th grade here I think). So you can imagine how many years were spent yearning after this lab.
Once I found myself in it, I had a ball. All intrinsic excitement though. I never once mixed the wrong compounds or turned my hair pink; though this older me thinks that pink hair would have been hilarious, the younger me would have been horrified to not get that experiment right the first time. We both agree that it was fun for us anyway. My idea of fun may have developed in strange directions over the years but the essence of it never changes. I’m never happy when an experiment is a disaster.Even at the risk of sounding just like Alton Brown, cooking has chemistry at its basis. Different ingredients come together and can either work in harmony or can result in metaphoric chemical disaster. And while I’ve had my low moments, for the most part no one has fainted from my cooking. Not like that time I excitedly stuck a test-tube containing the product of an experiment under my lab partner’s nose. I had to go over the lab safety lecture twice before they let me in the lab again.
The chemistry of ingredients is complicated. A combination of things can give different results on tiny tweaking of ingredients, sometimes even the use of a different quantity of the same ingredient. Complex flavours can result out of the smallest number of ingredients. And the application of heat can completely change the product. However just like in a chemical experiment, it is not always required. And now I bet I have you thinking that today’s recipe has some serious molecular gastronomy involved. Well no, it doesn’t. What it has is a very basic ingredient list that is pure heaven when they come together. Sort of an equivalent of what alchemists would have wanted, only this recipe actually is gold.
What I’m talking about is Sol Kadi, that wonderful Goan-Maharashtrian dish that has forever enthralled people who taste it. Containing a bare minimum of ingredients and requiring no heat, this is the earliest, quintessential raw food at its finest. The soul of sol kadi (I couldn’t resist the pun!) is kokum, a fruit native to the western regions of India and used extensively in Goan and Maharashtrian cooking. The fruit is a scarlet red when ripe and its rinds are sun-dried and used in cooking. It goes a deep red-purple when dried, just like beets or plums. And just like beets, it will colour absolutely everything it comes in contact with. It imparts a deep rich red hue when placed in water. But of course, the colour is a happy by-product. The flavour kokum produces is a rich sourness that is reminiscent of tamarind but I think, not quite as full-bodied in its development. Think of a note deeper than lemon but higher than tamarind. It is one of those flavours that will sing to you. The pulp of the fruit can be used to make sol kadi too, but I find it lacking something. May the kiss of the sun on the drying rind subtly enhances the flavour. Or maybe its just my imagination.
Serves 3-4 generously
Coconut milk – 2 small cans (use light if you wish) or 2 1/2 cups fresh
Kokum – 8-10 rinds
Garlic – 7-8 cloves, peeled
Ginger – 1/4″
Peppercorn – 8-9
Green chillies (thai or serrano) – 4-5, with the stalk taken off.
Salt to taste
A pinch of sugar to balance
Coriander/Cilantro to garnish
- Pour the coconut milk into a bowl or saucepan.
- In a grinder, grind the chillies, garlic, ginger and peppercorn. Add a couple of tablespoons of coconut milk to it and grind to a fine paste.
- Strain the paste into the pan containing the coconut milk, using a tea strainer or cheesecloth.
- Add the kokum to the coconut milk and ground spice mixture and give it a stir or two. Then let it the kokam steep for 20 minutes or so.
- Add salt and sugar, garnish with a little cilantro if desired, and serve.
Sol Kadi can be eaten over rice as a curry. It can be drunk as a digestive aid alongside your meal. It makes a wonderful addition to an Indian meal. There are different versions of it all around. My mum had advised me to use ginger only when lacking garlic. Other regions add or subtract ingredients. Some people grind coconut with water and strain it, thereby using some strange form of coconut water as its base. This I would not recommend. Sol kadi in its essence needs coconut milk. Whether you milk your own coconut or buy it in a can is not important. What is important is that it is coconut milk. Not water. Kokum and water produces a whole other thing. And don’t be tempted to make this dish using lemon or tamarind, it just won’t work. ‘Nuf said.
Kokum should be available at your nearest large Indian store if you live in a metropolitan area in the US. It keeps a while in the freezer, though older kokum tends to lose its freshness and more of them are required for the job. There is some wonderful information on kokum and some wonderful fresh kokam photos to be found here. In this dish, the delicate pink is as important as the flavour. A bit like the delicate lighter pink hue in these beautiful flowers I saw in a lane of Russian Hill in San Francisco.
Sol Kadi is one of those wonderful Indian dishes that are relatively unknown. Ask someone who is not from western India and chances are even they won’t know what it is. And probably won’t taste like any Indian food you’ve eaten. But it is well worth seeking kokum out to try it. As for the rest of the kokum?? Use it in any dish that requires a sour tang and where the red colour wouldn’t matter. It works amazingly well. just like an experiment that worked.