Sour Delights: Growing, Harvesting and Processing Kokum
Kokum has been an integral part of my life and I absolutely cannot imagine my diet without it. Let it be a hot summer afternoon or a bad tummy, kokum has always been at the rescue.
What’s Kokum? It’s a cherry tomato-like fruit, belongs to the mangosteen family (Clusiaceae) and it goes by the botanical name, Garcinia Indica. Here in India, it is known and preferred for its instant action for acidity, also referred to as Grandma’s cure to acidity. It has antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties and is known for its anti-arthritic, antibacterial, hepatoprotective, cardioprotective, antidepressant and anxiolytic effects.
Kokum is used as a condiment, both fresh and in dried form. The dry version is called aamsull, agal, or sometimes just kokum. It is used in a similar manner as that of dry raw mango and tamarind, as a souring agent. The pulpy skin and seeds are used for culinary, medicinal and industrial purposes.
It is native to the western ghats of India and is also naturalized in parts of northeastern India. An interesting observation is, a part of the northwestern ghats region of India, covering the coastal belt of the state of Maharashtra is called Kokan or Kokan Belt and I always wonder if Kokum has got something to do with it, a very similar sound right?
It is known as Goa Butter, Kokum Butter Tree, Wild Mangosteen, and Mangosteen Oil Tree. Additionally, it is also known as Birnad to the Portuguese in Goa, Bhirand or Amsol in Marathi and Konkani, Kokambi and Ratamba in Marathi, Murgal in Tamil and Kokumbrindeo in Malayalam.
The seed oil, known as kokum butter has been a traditional favorite for healing skin ailments and is included in daily skincare routines. Due to the growing recognition of kokum butter in the skin-care industry, the plant is planted across different parts of the world.
You can find dry kokum at places that sell Indian ingredients and give it a try based on some recipes that I have shared in this article along with the medicinal properties. Further to which you can decide upon integrating this evergreen gem in your growing spaces!
It is a medium-sized evergreen tree with a height ranging from 10 to 15 m or higher. It’s a slow-growing tree with a thin trunk, drooping and low-branching that supports a densely foliaged pyramidal crown.
It is locally integrated with coconut, areca nut and spice plantation at an understory level and also planted beside houses.
The bark is rough and scaly, brownish-grey in color with opposite branches. It can be found covered in lichens, moss, or algae that occur in the tropical environment and also partly due to the tree’s wet environment.
The tree has glossy green, red-tinged fleshy leaves that feel leathery and coriaceous. They are simple, opposite, or rarely ternate with translucent glands. The size ranges from 5 to 10cm long, the shape ranges from ovate to oblong, and are acute to obtuse at the base.
It begins to flower from the month of November to February, they bloom throughout the winter and the fruits start to form in April. The flowers are unisexual, small, thick, whitish pink in color with waxy petals and are borne straight on the stems, either singly or in a set of four.
The unripe fruits are green in color and the ripe fruits resemble cherry tomatoes, with color ranging from whitish green to pinkish red with hints of magenta, changing to deep purple on ripening.
Kokum plays an important role in the local culture and has been integrated skillfully based on observations and usage. Here are some properties of kokum that make it a favorite.
Drought & Heavy Rainfall Tolerant
Being native to one of the highest rainfall-receiving regions in India where the mean annual rainfall ranges from 2000 to 5000 mm, the Kokum tree can tolerate extremely wet climatic conditions and humidity. Simultaneously, the tropical wet and dry zones have kokum trees that have adapted to dry periods and extended dry periods which gives the tree some level of tolerance towards droughts as well.
Adapts to Diverse Soil Range
The western ghat range has a diverse range of soil profiles like sandy loam, hard clay, rocky laterite and more, Kokum has adapted to these various ranges and can be seen growing successfully at different elevations from sea levels ranging up to 800 m.
Kokum goes into a wide range of preps as a condiment, it is mostly used as a souring agent however it is also used as syrup for making instant beverages like the Kokum Sharbat which is a beloved cooling beverage preferred during a sunny day or intense outdoor sessions. Sol Kadi is another beverage known for its cooling and nutritive properties, a mixture of dry kokum extract and fresh coconut milk.
Kokum goes into both veg and nonveg preparations, the dry kokum is either presoaked in a bowl of water to extract flavor or added directly when cooking.
Kokum seeds are 23 to 35 % oil by weight, the oil is extracted by removing the seeds, crushing and boiling them. This is done traditionally in local communities by processing the kernels through an oil expeller, then simmering the pulp in water and removing the accumulated fat from the surface. Another approach involves blending the crushed pulp with water and churning it to separate the fat.
The oil stays in solid form at room temperature due to the presence of saturated fats and is rolled into a small elongated ball, it is available in local markets throughout the year and is used for medicinal, and edible purposes.
The low branching pattern makes it an excellent plant ot integrated into windbreak rows to lower the intensity of the winds just above the ground and inbetween the taller canopy species.
The locals prefer to plant the tree beside houses and around pathways as the pyramid-like shape and the low-lying branches and leaves with a tint of red make the tree look spectacular like a crown.
The tree appears even more attractive when the fruits began to form, bright color balls shining in the tropical sun.
Both Kokum skin and seed oil are traditionally used for their medicinal properties that help aid digestion and manage acidity by reducing inflammation in the stomach lining and preventing the formation of ulcers.
The presence of acetic acid helps regulate blood sugar, ascorbic acid helps boost immunity and fights oxidation, manganese helps strengthen bones, reduces inflammation, stabilizes blood sugar and hydroxy citric acid aids dieting.
Kokum is rich in antioxidants and inhibits lipid peroxidation; these properties lead to hepatoprotective or liver-protecting activity as well.
Additionally, Kokum can help alleviate pain and swelling caused by arthritis or other inflammatory conditions due to the presence of antioxidants that protect the body from oxidative stress and cellular damage caused by free radicals.
Local and Indigenous Wisdom
Kokum has been used for centuries in traditional medicine and skincare practices, especially in the coastal regions of India and integrating it into skincare formulations taps into local knowledge and sustainable sourcing, supporting indigenous communities while highlighting the importance of sustainable botanical resources.
Empowering Local Economies
Promoting kokum cultivation and butter extraction empowers local farmers and communities economically, providing an ethical and sustainable income source while fostering entrepreneurship and self-reliance.
Kokum Growing Guide; All You Need to Know
Kokum trees thrive in tropical and subtropical climates. They are well-suited to regions with warm temperatures and high humidity. They can tolerate temperatures ranging from 20°C (68°F) to 38°C (100°F) and sometimes a few degrees higher and lower, however the tree has minimal tolerance towards frost.
Kokum trees prefer full sunlight but can tolerate partial shade. Make sure they receive at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight daily for optimal growth and fruit production.
The kokum tree thrives in well-draining, sandy, or loamy soils with a slightly acidic to neutral pH level (pH 5.5 to 7.0). However, it can adapt to a wide range of soils and also grows well in extremely rocky to clay soils.
Kokum trees require regular and consistent watering, especially during the growing season. Keep the soil evenly moist but not waterlogged. Reduce watering during the dormant period. Once established, it can withstand both droughts and waterlogging up to some extent.
Pests and Diseases
Kokum trees can be susceptible to various pests and diseases, including aphids, caterpillars, and fungal infections. Regular inspection and appropriate pest control measures, such as natural predators or organic pesticides, can help manage these issues.
Kokum plants are typically propagated through seeds. While it is possible to use grafting or air-layering techniques for propagating kokum, these methods are not commonly employed locally.
Seeds usually self-germinate around the mother plant and when required are collected from mature fruits and planted directly in soil or in raised nursery beds/ pockets.
Obtain fresh, ripe kokum fruits. Gently remove the seeds from the fruit pulp. Rinse the seeds to remove any remaining pulp.
Seed Preparation (Optional)
Soak the kokum seeds in water for 24-48 hours. This helps soften the seed coat and promote germination.
Preparing Seed Trays/ Pots
Fill nursery pots or seed trays with a well-draining and compost-rich potting mix. Water the potting mix thoroughly so it’s evenly moist but not soggy.
Plant the soaked kokum seeds about 1/2 to 1 inch deep in the prepared pots or seed trays. Place 2-3 seeds per pot or cell to increase the chances of germination. Lightly cover the seeds with a thin layer of potting mix.
Place the pots or trays in a warm and humid location with indirect sunlight. Kokum seeds require warm temperatures to germinate, around 25-30°C (77-86°F). If using grow lights, keep them on for about 12-16 hours a day to provide adequate light for germination.
Watering and Care
Keep the potting mix consistently moist but not waterlogged. You can use a spray bottle to mist the surface if needed.
Optional: In case of extremely low humidity, place a plastic wrap or transparent plastic dome over the pots or trays to create a mini-greenhouse effect. This helps maintain high humidity, which is beneficial for germination. Check the plastic cover regularly for condensation. If it becomes too humid, temporarily lift the cover to allow some ventilation.
Kokum seeds typically germinate within 2-4 weeks, although it may take longer in some cases.
Once the seedlings have grown a few inches tall and developed a few leaves, they can be transplanted into larger pots or directly into the garden, if suitable conditions are available. Choose a sunny location with well-draining soil or under the canopy of existing trees that allow at least 50% of sunlight to pass for planting.
Care & Maintenance
Water the young kokum trees regularly, especially during the growing season. Provide protection from strong winds and extreme weather conditions. As the trees grow, you can gradually reduce the frequency of watering but make sure they receive sufficient water during dry periods.
Kokum trees grown from seeds can take a few years to start producing fruits, thus, it requires patience, as it may take several years for the trees to reach maturity and start producing fruit.
Additionally, applying a layer of organic mulch around the base of the tree helps retain soil moisture, suppress weeds, and provide some nutrients to the soil as the mulch breaks down.
Prune the tree to shape it and promote healthy growth. Remove dead, diseased, or overcrowded branches. Pruning also helps improve air circulation and sunlight penetration within the tree canopy.
Alternative: One can buy 2 to 3 years old kokum trees from a nursery to reduce the waiting period by a couple of years.
Note: For grafted plants, ensure the graft joint is at least 15 cm above the ground.
Harvesting & Storage
The fruit ripens just before the monsoon season (May to September) in India. They are harvested once they turn deep red or purple and become slightly soft to the touch.
The fruit can be used fresh or dried for culinary purposes. Most of the harvested kokum is stored for the upcoming year as being a potent source of souring agent, it is used in limited quantities.
The fruits are harvested with netted fruit pluckers or by hand. They are juicy when ripe and start rotting within a few days when they fall on the ground, thus for storage, it becomes important to pluck them before they fall down, gently without causing any trauma. The fallen fruits can be used immediately for fresh consumption in the form of juice or used in cooking.
The harvested ones are washed, wiped with a cloth, and left to ensure there’s no moisture.
The whole fruit is utilized, the outer skin is made into dry kokum or kokum syrup and the seeds are used to extract kokum butter.
Here are the three traditional methods of processing and storing kokum:
Salt and Sun Drying
The fruits are opened by hand, the pulp and seeds are separated, the thick skin is then sun-dried either as it is or by placing a few grains of sea salt inside for increasing its storage potential.
They are dried for a week or slightly more depending on the sun until they start to curl up and dry. Once they lose around 75 to 80% of the moisture, they are stored in airtight jars.
Storage Tip: As per the local practice, the entire harvest is stored in an airtight container and smaller proportions are taken out as per monthly or quarterly need, this helps avoid spoilage of the entire batch due to frequent handling and exposure to moisture.
Similar to salt drying, syrup is made by filling the slice with jaggery or sugar instead of salt and sundried, here instead of drying completely, the slices turn slightly soft as they soak in the sweet as it melts.
Then they are transferred into a glass jar with more sugar if required and sealed airtight. The jar is left in the sun for some hours, this helps the sugar melt and the syrup formation begins with a strong flavor that is tangy and sweet.
This syrup becomes the base for kokum sharbat or juice.
Kokum butter is made at home or together by the community, it is a long manual process. Once the pulpy skin is removed for storage, the white fleshy pockets containing seeds are washed in water.
Quick Tip: This water makes excellent kokum sharbat as well, some sugar, salt and cumin and you are ready with a freshly made tangy beverage!
Traditionally, the seeds are collected and cleaned to remove any remaining fruit residues. The residues are hard to remove by hand thus the seeds are rubbed with ample wood ash and are spread out in a well-ventilated hot sunny spot to dry for 3 to 4 days. This reduces the moisture content of the seeds and makes it easy to separate the skin from the seed. This helps increase the life of butter and enhance the flavors as well.
The dry seeds are dusted and passed through a stone grinder or beaten with a stick in a jute sack to separate the outer skin of the seeds.
Interesting Fact: The remains of the skin are used as a mosquito repellent by smoking them over leftover charcoal from the fire stove.
The seeds are then again washed with water to remove ash residues if any and roasted in a large container to make them brittle and enhance the flavor. They are roasted until they start to release a hint of oil and are allowed to cool down naturally.
Then they are made into a fine powder by pounding in a traditional stone grinder or electric mixer. Simultaneously, water, almost 3 times the measure of the powder by volume, is boiled on a wood-fired stove. The powder is added to the boiling water and slowed to boil for 1.5 to 2 hours and is ensured that the consistency is not too thick or thin
The seed oil starts to float on the surface in the form of a foamy liquid. Another vessel of cold water is kept aside and this foamy oil is carefully scooped out and transferred to the cold water, the scooping continues until all of the oil is scooped. The oil starts to cool down in the cold water forming a cake-like slab that floats on the water. This slab is removed and washed with cold water.
The butter chunks are then melted and boiled again in a container to ensure any remains of water evaporates, the liquid butter is sieved through a fine mesh to get the pure kokum oil which is then made into small balls, traditionally rolled by hand or can be poured into a mold to make butter slabs.
The butter starts to solidify as it cools, it is repeatedly pressed to remove any excess water if it exists.
Interesting Fact: In Konkani language, the butter slabs are called Muthla as it is pressed by hand in a fist and the fist is called muth in Marathi and Konkani language.
This is the rawest form of kokum butter which is used in a traditional manner however for the industrial level demand and depending on the desired quality and purity, additional refining processes, such as deodorization or bleaching, may be performed.
Interesting Traditional Kokam Applications
Kokum butter contains healthy fats and is a source of essential nutrients like fatty acids and vitamins and its unique flavor profile adds depth and complexity to recipes, enhancing the taste of dishes and beverages. It is applied as butter on rice, millets and wheat flatbreads (roti and bhakri) like butter.
Kokum butter is used for skin care, locally it is used extensively during winter as a moisturizer for healing dry skin and throughout the year for healing cracked heels. It’s like the local, packaging and preservatives-free skin care companion!
One has to melt the butter a little to use it as a moisturizer. You can also use it as a lip balm by simply rubbing your finger on the butter and rubbing a tiny amount in between your two fingers to slightly melt it before applying it to your lips.
Kokum Syrup comes in handy during summers for making quick beverages that I have listed below and dry kokum goes into everyday cooking that helps digestion.
Additionally, dry unsalted kokum is also used to treat skin conditions such as inflammation and boils, the kokum is soaked in water and the water is applied to rashes and boils externally for relief.
Traditional Kokum Recipes
Sol kadi is a popular local beverage made across the coastal regions of Maharashtra and Goa. The dried kokum fruits (amsul), are soaked in water for a couple of hours, and mixed with freshly extracted coconut milk and spices.
Here’s a quick recipe for 4 servings.
- Soak 15 to 20 amsul pieces in 2 cups of water for an hour.
- Grate a fresh coconut, and blend it with a 1-inch dice of ginger and 1 to 2 green chilies (based on spice tolerance)
- Strain the blended mixture through a fine mesh cloth to extract milk, you can repeat the blending process two to 3 times with the same grated coconut to ensure all of the milk is extracted. Compost the remains.
- Smash the soaked kokum with a hand or smasher to extract the juice, sieve it to extract the juice, and mix it with the coconut milk.
- Add salt as per preference, and top with some finely chopped coriander. Serve fresh or refrigerate for a few hours to serve it chilled.
Sol Kadi can be refrigerated and stored for up to 2 days or more at times. However, having it on the same day is recommended for a refreshing experience.
Tip: In case of unavailability of fresh coconuts, you can use packaged coconut milk as well, however, the taste will differ.
There are variations of this drink and it is preferred as both a refreshing drink or had with rice. It is considered as a must with fish or meat meals as it helps balance the spice and aids digestion.
Benefits of Sol Kadi
Sol kadhi is often consumed during hot weather due to its cooling effect on the body. It has a natural cooling property that can help beat the heat and prevent dehydration.
The tangy and flavorful taste can stimulate the appetite, making it a good choice for those with reduced appetite.
It is rich in antioxidants, including anthocyanins and vitamin C, which can help neutralize harmful free radicals and protect cells from oxidative stress.
The combination of kokum and coconut milk in sol kadhi can help maintain electrolyte balance and hydration due to their mineral content, particularly potassium.
Kokum Sharbat (Juice)
Kokum Sharbat is another quick beverage made from kokum syrup. It’s simple, take a few spoons of kokum syrup, and add them to water, the syrup already has sugar so one can add more based on preference. Crush some cumin with a stone or rolling pin, mix it all up with a pinch of salt, and the kokum sharbat is ready.
You can have it chilled or at room temperature.
The sharbat can be made from fresh kokum fruit as well, instead of syrup, one has to crush the fresh fruit in water and remove the seeds, add in cumin, sugar and salt and that’s it!
The integration of kokum trees into local landscapes and lives tells the tales of observation and interaction with our surroundings and finding ways to obtain yield to meet our needs.
It demonstrates the permaculture principles of integration, stacking functions, catching and storing energy, observing and interacting, and many more. I bet you can spot many more through this article and I hope it helps you explore the potential of this wild Mangosteen gem 🙂