When I first went to Kokum, it was to eat dosa. The crisp fermented rice and lentil crêpes can be found almost anywhere, but they originated in South India, making this Curry Hill spot an obvious choice. Kokum focuses on that cuisine, from the region where its namesake fruit is most prevalent; like other restaurants from the Fine Indian Dining group (such as Chote Nawab, Haldi and Chola), it provides an entry point into the various regional flavors of the subcontinent in an effort to get people to stop thinking “Indian food” is a monolith.
The flavors of the four South Indian states Kokum’s menu focuses on—Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra—are spicier, tangier and richer with coconut milk than most other regions’. “Initially we just wanted to do Kerala cuisine, but you know, in New York you need to play around,” says consulting chef Roshan Balan. “You see—Americans especially—walking in, even if it’s a unique restaurant, they come in and they just order samosas, chicken tikka masala, saag paneer. But we wanted to introduce and teach them that there is a variety. Some of them like it; it’s a little hard to take, a little stronger taste, but now that people are traveling, they have learned. I started my career here at Chola, up on 58th Street. In those days, like 2000, 2001, even with a little bit of spice, people complain.”
As he notes, the climate has shifted, but Kokum still offers naan and chicken tikka masala to assuage anyone coming in who doesn’t want to delve into dishes like the Kumly chicken, a dish native to Kerala that’s spiced with curry leaf, chile and mustard seed. When you ask Balan what guests should order, he immediately answers, “No samosas.”
Above is an introduction to the Andhra thali, one of their lunch specials, from chef Hemant Mathur; he’s the first chef to earn a Michelin star in New York City for Indian cuisine, at restaurants Devi and later Tulsi, and the owner of the restaurant group.
Photo credit: Facebook/Kokum