Spice Hunting: Kodampuli

I'm afraid I'll never be able to get the stench of these out of my cabinets. I debated for months whether it was even worth writing about them. They stink, they aren't versatile, and there's not much English language information about them accessible to home cooks. But sometimes in the name of culinary creativity you do things you don't want to do, like cook with some curls of sun-dried and smoked fruit that look and smell like you found them behind an Ewok's ear.

Fortunately, kodampuli tastes much better than it smells. And if you're a Western fan of Indian food whose only experience of the cuisine is what's available in restaurants and ethnic markets, you're in for a treat. Kodampuli is a gateway ingredient to regional Indian cooking that doesn't get much attention in the U.S.: the cooking of Kerala in Southern India.

What is Kodampuli?

Kodampuli (also known as gambodge, Malabar tamarind, fish tamarind, and mistakenly as kokum) is a fruit used to add sourness to curries in Kerala. When the fruit ripens, it's removed from the vine, seeded, and left to dry in the sun till it turns leathery. The skins are then smoked, infusing them with a complex aroma not wholly unlike rotting garbage: sweet, funky, and astringent.

But rest assured they do taste good. After a brief rinse and soak, the skins are added to curries, which in Kerala means a pungent sauce, rich with creamy coconut milk and abundant with the freshest seafood. Heat, time, and a bath of spices cleanse the kodampuli of its rotten aroma. Instead, it contributes a pleasant sourness to the sauce, with hints of sweetness, astringency, and the faintest whiff of smoke. Kodampuli is what sourness tastes like in the absence of acidity. Its flavor isn't tart, and it doesn't brighten foods like acids do, but cuts through rich ingredients exceptionally well.

The effect on the dish is completely transformative—fish curry just wouldn't be the same without it. Much like white wine in or with a fish stew, kodampuli compliments fish's natural sweetness while giving it something to play against.

How Do I Use It?

I wish I could say kodampuli is a versatile spice, but its use is almost exclusively restricted to Kerala cuisine, fish curry in particular. But don't let that keep you from getting your hands on some. Indian food, like Italian, French, and Chinese cooking, is intensely regional, and American restaurant diners are only exposed to a few regions' offerings. Kerala style cooking isn't among them, so if you want to expand your Indian food horizons, you'll need to do it on your own.

Kerala curries are refreshing. They don't rely on heavy amounts of liquid fat and avoid intense sweet spices like cardamom and clove. But they're satisfyingly meaty, not just from fresh fish (Kerala is on the water and is a thriving fishing hub), but from rich coconut milk, preferably chunky from bits of actual coconut (you can get frozen unprocessed coconut milk in Thai and Indian groceries). Kodampuli's sourness is a perfect balance to the rich coconut and intense spicing. Using it is dead simple: Rinse it briefly to dislodge any grit, then soak it in hot water for a few minutes before adding it to any sauce. Three to four pieces is sufficient for a curry for four, and ten minutes' cooking is more than enough time for them to release their flavor.

In between your fish curry adventures, keep your kodampuli stored in as airtight containment as you can manage. I nearly ruined my supply of cinnamon and cloves by prolonged, stinky exposure to poorly wrapped kodampuli. Wrap it tightly in plastic, then put that in a large glass jar or an airtight plastic container. Keep it with your other sequestered-off spices, like asafoetida.

Where to Find Kodampuli

Kodampuli isn't easy to find. Well-stocked Indian groceries may carry it (Kalustyan's carries it for New Yorkers). If you can't find it locally, don't hesitate to seek it out online.