* Most Malayali households will have a stockpile of the spice in the kitchen cupboard

* The Malabar tamarind tree grows in almost every backyard in Kerala

* Kudampuli is stored in huge ceramic pots ( bharanis ), but not before it gets a good rub of coconut oil and salt for preservation and softening

There is a certain love-hate relationship between a Malayali and his homegrown kudampuli (Malabar tamarind; Garcinia cambogia ). It’s a bond made tenacious by need, sweat and toil, and family prestige. When the 3.5-crore populace of a fully literate state feels the way it does about this sour-smelling, shrivelled-up southern spice, we know there’s more to the kudampuli than meets the eye.

Puli love blooms early, when a child, lured by the mysterious aroma wafting from the kitchen, dips a finger into an earthen pot full of the signature Kerala red fish curry ( meen vevichuthu ). Simbly lip-smackingly, toe-curlingly, chilli hot and sour! The child soon learns that the rockstar of this dish is the kudampuli ( kudam means pot, puli is tamarind). In fact, without it, most fish dishes of Kerala wouldn’t hit the popularity charts.

That perfect combination of the kudampuli , chilli and salt coming together in a tripartite culinary pact to honour the fish in their midst is what seals that sacred love. To deconstruct this love is to tweak a quote from the film Scent of a Woman : “Flavour is such a powerful tool of attraction... if she has this tool perfectly tuned, it needs no other. I will forgive her a large nose, a cleft lip, even crossed-eyes; and I’ll bathe in the jouissance of her intoxicating odour.”

Most households will have a stockpile of the spice in the kitchen cupboard. Hoarding of the condiment is actively encouraged. In fact, the puli goes wherever the Malayali goes — and that’s roughly the whole wide world. Many a custom official back in Iceland has screwed up his nose and knit his eyebrows, perplexed by the queer smell coming from many a suitcase. Only days of airing will rid the case of the odour. But the Malayali with passport will travel with the kudampuli , lest he or she be damned to a cuisine of mediocrity.

This tamarind tree grows in backyards in Kerala, mostly by chance and not by choice. It transforms from a green segmented fruit that resembles the inside of an orange to a yellow juicy form when it matures. But, for it to be eligible for the cooking pot, it has to undergo a two-month-long curing process, much like a student at finishing school. When hand-held, cajoled, and tenderly disciplined, it changes from yellow to amber to nut-brown to shiny jet black. That’s when it wins the honour stripes to grace the dining table.

The hard work and agony start at picking time. While it can be plucked when ripe, most households let nature take its course, allowing it to drop naturally to the ground. Garcinia cambogia , no doubt aware of its importance to the gastronomy of the people of this sliver of a state, descends on the ground along with the first drops of monsoon showers.

Now, the puli tree is both magnificent and benevolent. It grows in abundance in Kerala and is zero-maintenance. Its bounteous crop is free for the taking. Even if a household does not have this tree in its backyard, the neighbour’s will do, sans any territorial war. There is an understanding built over centuries that a puli tree can service every home it leans into.

When the yellow fruits plop to the ground, families scamper out to gather them, taking care to avoid their indelible stain. The puli is then deseeded, spread out on a pul paya (grass mat) and left to dry in the sun.

However, the sun plays truant, hides behind dark clouds and a light rain begins its descent. Out rushes the household to drag the paya to a dry spot. When the rain recedes, and the sun re-emerges, the paya is back out. Some even lug the whole lot up to the terrace to get the maximum advantage of the sun. This sequence, a parody really, is repeated day in and day out, and as the daily puli collection mounts, the paya gets heavier, and the rain more copious.

Dampness can spell doom for the puli as it could turn mouldy and putrid. This cannot be allowed as the reputation of the household is at stake. Where modern electrical dehydrating machines or ovens could complete the curing in record time, most families prefer the laborious traditional “that’s the way it’s done” route. Naturally, they have a trick or two up their sleeves.

In the fiercest of monsoons, a wire mesh is rigged up over a wood fire and the puli is spread out on the mesh. As the fire is lit every morning and evening, each segment begins to curl into itself with the warmth of the gentle heat and smoke. After several days of heat therapy, the puli drops its unhealthy pallor and turns into a black swan. It is stored in huge ceramic pots ( bharanis ), but not before it gets a good rub of coconut oil and salt for preservation and softening.

Each year’s collection tastes different and only the seasoned tongue can spot the nuances of its potency. The fewer the segments needed to add zest to the pot, the higher the pedigree. The household can now rest, its maanam (honour) restored, and the spice shared visa-free with all cousins and country cousins right up to Iceland. Until the next monsoon.

Litta Jacob is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru