x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A plateful of tasty kokum

Restaurant review James Brennan discovers the savoury niche of Konkans restaurant, which caters to south-west Indian tastes.

James Brennan is eager to spread the word about Konkans, a restaurant specialising in an unusual spice from the south-west of India.
James Brennan is eager to spread the word about Konkans, a restaurant specialising in an unusual spice from the south-west of India.

Konkans Tourist Club Area, behind Emirates Plaza Hotel Tel: 02 676 0588 Price for two: Dh50 to 100 To appreciate Konkans is to appreciate kokum. This unusual spice, made from the fruit of the garcinia indica tree, is native to the coastal regions in the south-west of India. It is used as a souring agent rather like tamarind in Konkani cuisine, which hails from an area that spans from Mumbai in the north to the state of Karnataka in the south. Even in ­India, kokum is rarely used outside of this region, so its appearance at this Mangalorean/Goan restaurant in the traffic-clogged backstreets of Abu Dhabi is a rare and welcome phenomenon. It just takes a bit of getting used to.

My Goan fish curry was crammed with the stuff. The black dried skin of the fruit had been added liberally to the thick brown curry sauce that covered two tender steaks of kingfish. To the uninitiated, kokum has a similar appearance and texture to the velvety skin of a shiitake mushroom. But its distinctively sour and vinegary flavour was a potent reminder that I was indulging in something altogether different and reassuringly authentic.

Kokans is new. Its yellow gingham tablecloths and stylish leather seats populate a clean and uncluttered restaurant that aims to cater to the Konkani diaspora in the capital. It's a very neat and clean dining environment, but it was criminally empty on our visit. Every time the door slammed shut the whole place shuddered, as if to remind you that, after all, this is a very modest restaurant with such limited niche appeal that everything could come crashing down at any moment, kokum and all. Since Konkans is genuinely worthy of a much wider audience, I decided there and then that it was my duty to spread the word.

We began with a few fried and roasted papads alongside a prickly lime pickle and a cool and delicately spiced aloo raita. When our next course arrived, we spooned the thick yoghurt and potato dip onto the firm, moist flesh of the hammour tikka. The familiar Indian standard was a kokum-free zone, but the striking tandoori flavours of this popular fish dish will please those whose palates are yet to adjust to the slightly astringent fruit spice. When our main courses ­arrived, ­nobody was more pleased, it seemed, than our waiter.

The smartly attired gent was beaming with pride as I hungrily dispatched the Goan fish curry. Meanwhile, my dining partner was nibbling on the chicken sukka. Here we had yet another authentic Konkani recipe consisting of chicken on the bone under a swamp of thick, dry and spicy paste. Made with coconut and chillies, coriander, cumin and fenugreek seeds, and, of course, kokum, it was a delight to savour between folds of buttery garlic naan bread and fine-spun grains of basmati rice. Although he was temporarily out of sight, I could sense our waiter was still beaming.

Though the menu boasted many more authentic Konkani treasures - crab xacutti, fish gassi and squid koliwada to name but three - we were a kokum-skin short of exploding. Or so we thought. Our grinning waiter had the perfect solution - more kokum. This time it arrived in the form of sol kadi, a piquant Konkani digestive drink made with coconut milk. The pinkish-brown liquid had a medicinal quality to it, and although it was sour enough to make Mick Jagger's lips shrivel, ­after our gastronomic adventures at Konkans, it was much appreciated.