Gambooge (Garcinia gummi-gutta) is an evergreen tree belonging to the Clusiaceae family. It is small to medium-sized and grows slowly. The branches are horizontal, the bark is blackish and rough with dark yellow sap, the leaves are dark green, relatively thick and glossy. The leaves grow up to 5-13 cm long and 2-8 cm wide. The fruit is yellow, purple or red with 7-13 very deep vertical grooves, making it look like a small pumpkin. The flesh of the fruit is slightly to strongly acidic with 6-8 seeds inside.
It needs deep, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic and clayey. Although it needs plenty of rain, a short dry period is essential for the flowers to bloom. The flowers are white and bloom from February to April.
It is quite common and abundant in tropical forests from 400 to 900 m above sea level in western Sri Lanka and southern India.
Gambooge has been used in Sri Lanka since ancient times for culinary and medicinal purposes. The young green fruits gradually turn colour as they ripen. Once mature, the fruits are harvested, cut in half, de-seeded and dried in the sun for a whole day. Half of the harvest is smoked until black, rubbed with a mixture of salt and oil, and placed in terracotta jars. Once hermetically sealed, they will stay fresh for years.
Too sour to be eaten raw, the dried peel is widely used in Sri Lankan and South Indian cuisine. It is used in place of lime and tamarind, which is also used as an acidifier in fish curries and other seafood preparations. This is why it is also known as Fish Tamarind or Malabar Tamarind.
Gambooge is a plant that is threatened by over-commercialisation. It is used in Ayurveda for its properties described as therapeutic and antiseptic, processed into capsules, tablets and sold overseas as a nutritional supplement. Proper and careful management of the resource and harvesting in the correct manner would ensure a favourable conservation status for the species and maintain the traditional uses of the local community.