The absence of salt in food is often one of the first things you’ll notice within a couple of bites of a dish. Blandness is frequently ascribed to that sensation, but lacking somehow feels like a better word, a bit like trying to knead roti dough without enough liquid to bind the flour: it just isn’t going to come together. Salt feels indispensable for exactly that reason, but there’s another category of ingredient that leaves a gaping hole when it’s not there. Acid takes hundreds of different forms in Indian cooking, sometimes standing tall in the centre of a dish and other times, slowly sneaking up on you. In Salt, Fat, Acid Heat, Samin Nosrat writes that “the true value of acid is not its pucker, but rather, balance.” There are, of course, plenty of sources of acid in the world, from citrus fruits, vinegar and tamarind to sour cream, cheese and wine. For me, it's deep-fried slivers of ladies finger with a squeeze of lime, yellow dal with a hit of amchur, and so much more, that stand out. And in Karnataka, it’s a small fruit that adds a delectable, unexpected punch to the state’s culinary style.
The hog plum isn’t isolated to the state, and is grown, eaten and called by other names in various parts of the country — amra in West Bengal, ambazhanga in Kerala. In Kannada, it’s called amtekai — or ambade in Tulu — a small plum with speckled moss-green skin that, when peeled away, reveals a pastel interior with a fresh tangy aroma, not unlike the unripened flesh of a totapuri mango. A thin layer of pulp covers a hard seed and takes up a bulk of the fruit, but that’s all part of its charm. Cooked down, the hog plum adds a sharp, fruity sourness to gojjus, pickles, and preparations along the coast from Mangalorean seafood curries to tangy Goan sasavs and vegetarian feasts from Gaud Saraswat Brahmin cuisine’s repertoire.
Cookbook author Deepika Shetty describes the sour fruit — fibrous pit and all — as a seasonal treat when she was growing up. “Everytime my mother mentions amte kai, her mouth waters and I can see a happy glint in her eyes when she remembers all those tangy sour fruits she has eaten when she was at her home,” she writes in Coconut Grove, an ode to flavours of the coast. The book includes a recipe for hog plum and ridge gourd chutney (heerekai amte bajji), where the two are boiled before the seed of the amte kai is discarded and they are ground together with coconut, coriander, peppercorns and onion.
“If you try to eat it when it's raw, it sticks to the top of your palette,” Deepika says, a sensation called ‘hassi’ in Kannada. “When you cook it down, it's like a green mango.”
While writing the book in Dubai, where she lives now, Deepika initially found it challenging to get a hold of any hog plums. You aren’t likely to easily find these fruits in most grocery stores in Indian cities either, though Saritha Hegde, the owner of Bengaluru food business Not Just Hot, finds her supply at Mangalorean vegetable shops in the city.
Saritha recalls amtekai growing on trees outside their ancestral home in coastal Karnataka. She remembers her mother asking her to check whether any had fallen off the trees and to bring them into the house. “If you were lucky and it was ripe, it was also quite sweet and something you could enjoy eating,” she says.
Hog plums frequently find favour as souring agents in vegetarian and prawn dishes, offering a much different sort of tang. “Tamarind has a tendency to overpower and that’s usually used for our fish and things like that, whereas for vegetarian dishes, it was always mostly ambade,” Saritha says.
Descriptions of sourness often borrow from the language of perfumery, even in passing conversation. For tamarind, arguably the most commonly used source of acid in south Indian cooking, it's a woodsy base note that lingers in the foundation of a well-executed sambar. Sharp, fruity sour notes, like mango and hog plum, sit high above. (Actual perfumers, please don’t come after me). For Saritha, amtekai was often used in regional preparations, from basale soppu (Mangalorean spinach), bende gassi (a curry with ladies finger), and more. She recently pulverised the thin flesh and skin of amtekai, and pan fried the fruit with finely chopped Mangalorean ladies fingers, a bit longer and a bit more tender than the most common variety. The result, an upkari, was a delicate balance that begins tart, turns sweet and ends with heat.
Once you start to think about it, it’s not hard to find those sources of sour that you may not even notice until they’re gone. (Coming back to our comparison of salt and acid, the addition of acid while cooking actually reduces the need for salt, writes Nik Sharma in The Flavour Equation). But dive deeper into Karnataka’s regional biodiversity, and a host of acidic ingredients reveal themselves, especially ones that could be lost without adequate preservation. “Traditionally if you look at our cuisine, there are many souring agents that are used,” says Merwin Fernandes, who runs Savera Farms in the Western Ghats. Kokum is used in northern parts of the state, as it is used in Maharashtrian and Goan cooking. In Coorg, kodampuli or Malabar tamarind, balances the heat and sweetness of black pepper and pork. A yellow variety of mangosteen, called gamboge or jaarige, has culinary uses in towns in Uttara Kannada district.
Possibly the most common way the fruit is prepared throughout India is hog plum pickle. Saritha recalls two distinctly different ways that amtekai pickle was made in her father’s and mother’s family homes, both without oil, but with just salt, chili and spices, as is common for Mangalorean pickles. The pickle from her father’s family included the addition of raw mustard to its flavours. “I thought their [pickle] was much nicer,” she says, “though my mother will deny it.”