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How regional condiments got a gourmet makeover

Chutneys and aachars get a modern update as chefs experiment with everything from French techniques to prawn discards and red ants

(From left) Kerala-style beef and gongura pickle; Mustard pork and fermented bamboo shoot pickle inspired by the Bengali-style shorshe maach. (Photo: Gautam Krishnankutty)
(From left) Kerala-style beef and gongura pickle; Mustard pork and fermented bamboo shoot pickle inspired by the Bengali-style shorshe maach. (Photo: Gautam Krishnankutty)

Homebound during the covid-19-induced lockdown in Mumbai last year, Velton Saldanha, former sous chef at the city's O Pedro restaurant, recreated a small batch of his grandmother’s Mangalorean-style galmbyachi chutney (dried prawns and red chilli chutney) in his home kitchen, guided solely by memories, but with fresh prawns. The chutney was an instant hit among all those who sampled it. A few months later, Saldanha launched Chutney Collective with a single chutney - Prawn and Chili chutney. Over the last year, Saldanha has expanded his repertoire of chutneys to include options like Bombay Duck Sukke and Fried Chicken Thecha that are inspired takes on regional condiments

Indian cuisines boast of a mind-boggling variety of condiments—stone-ground chutneys and podis, mouth-puckering pickles, spicy thokku, hand-pounded thecha and what not—that amp up the flavour quotient and add taste and texture, even to ordinary meals. However, once restricted to domestic kitchens, regional Indian condiments are taking on gourmet avatars in the hands of artisanal brands who are doing brisk business on the strength of a loyal, growing clientele.

Saldanha, originally trained in French cuisine at Kendall College (now National Louis University) and later at New York’s famous seafood restaurant, Le Bernardin, uses typical French techniques in creating gourmet renditions of desi chutneys. To make his prawn and chili chutney, for instance, he confits the prawns in prawn oil infused with spices—Byadgi chilis, peppercorns, cassia bark and bay leaves—before blending them with an emulsion of tamarind and jaggery made using the same technique as a French gastrique (sweet and sour emulsion of caramelised sugar and vinegar) that transforms it into a silken paste. His Fried Chicken Thecha, is a mix of spiced shreds of chicken and bits of crackling, pounded together with chilies, onions and garlic. It combines his love for the salted fried green chillies, a crucial element in Mumbai’s iconic street snack, the vada pav, and fried chicken and hot sauce from his stint in the US, studying and later working at restaurants including Chicago’s Acadia that closed doors during the pandemic.

Like Saldanha, Urvashi Mirchandani conceived her condiment-focused brand The Kitchen Project in Mumbai during last year’s lockdown. It was a bite of her mother Girija’s ham sandwich slathered with homemade yellow mustard late one night that translated to a moment of epiphany. “My mother is an ingenious cook, and while I had tasted her homemade mustard before, that night it struck me that we must take it to people,” she says.

So, at The Kitchen Project, the mother-daughter duo serves up a range of preserves, pickles and condiments, mostly family recipes from Girija’s kitchen, some handed down through generations. “Our Colonial Sweet and Spicy Mango Pickle, for example, evolved from a decades-old recipe for a mango pickle studded with raisins that my grandfather, an erstwhile zamindar in Uttar Pradesh, acquired from a British caregiver. Over time, in our kitchen, it picked up an Indian accent with the addition of spices and seasonings to suit our palate,” says Mirchandani. Besides, there’s mango pickle flavoured with asafoetida imported from Kabul, sweet and spicy tomato chutney, and a piquant chicken pickle. “These recipes are exclusive to our kitchen,” she adds.


A condiment from The Kitchen Project. 
A condiment from The Kitchen Project. 

In Bengaluru, chef Gautam Krishnankutty who gave the city Smoke Co and Café Thulp!, has been doling out his speciality sauces and condiments from his home kitchen since closing down his restaurants in the aftermath of the lockdown last year, through his Instagram page (@gonzogarbanzo), on first-come-first-serve basis. “It was a continuation of our kitchen philosophy at Smoke Co, where we made all our sauces and condiments in house from scratch,” he says.

In addition to classic Kerala-style beef and pork pickles and his wildly popular fermented red chilli sauce Lal Salaam, Krishnankutty, a passionate fermentation-enthusiast, trumps up a few quirky numbers that combine East Asian flavours and sensibilities with indigenous ingredients, especially from the North-East. So, he has made a version of the Thai giant water bug chilli paste with red ants from Odisha, blended his version of Xinjiang Sichuan pepper salt with Sichuan peppercorns and roasted and flaked Sirarakhong chillies from Manipur with Kerala-style dried prawn chamanthi to make his Chinese Karuvadu Podi. His mustard pork and fermented bamboo shoot pickle jazzed with green and red chilies, garlic, nigella and fennel seeds, and pungent mustard oil, says Krishnankutty, is inspired by the Bengali-style shorshe maach (fish in mustard gravy).

Mumbai-based Native Tongue that launched in December 2019, helmed by Ruchira Sonalkar and her husband Rohan Sonalkar, rides on an ingredient-driven philosophy that shines the spotlight on regional ingredients sourced from across the country and presents familiar flavours in exciting new forms. On offer is a range of chutneys, pickles and preserves and nut butters that Ruchira says, “celebrate indigenous produce and local flavours.” So, their Peanut Butter spiked with Byadgi chilies is a reinterpretation of the all-so-familiar shengdana chutney, while their caramelized onion and fig relish gets its fruity tang from Coorg’s signature vinegar, Kachampuli, and uses the GI tagged Purandar figs. The Native Tongue XO sauce, on the other hand, is a flavour-packed concoction of locally sourced dried shrimp called jawla and Goa’s star sausage, Choris.

Also read | Going beyond the Goan 'choris'

The Goa Choris is also the star in Pune-based Nomad Food Project’s chunky Chorizo Jam where the sausages sourced from Goa are slow-cooked with onions and tomatoes, to a sweet, spicy and sticky finish. “This jam is everything Goan and best savoured slathered on some pav,” says Advaith Inamke, who founded The Nomad Project, along with fellow Institute of Hotel Management, Mumbai alumnus Aditya Rai. “In fact, it started out as a research project during our culinary school days in 2016 and eventually morphed into a full-fledged enterprise,” says Inamke.

At The Nomad Project, bacon is in focus. In addition to savoury bacon jams spiked with Bourbon and smoked stout, they have incorporated bacon into the traditional Maharashtrian hirvi mirchi cha thecha (pounded green chili chutney). The bacon, sourced from ancestral farms around Pune, is rendered and pounded with local green chillies fried in bacon fat, and garlic to make a fiery condiment that could add zing to any meal. “Our focus is on creating unique recipes that use simple, fresh ingredients, right techniques and are steeped in nostalgia,” says Inamke.

“I love experimenting with flavours, pushing the envelope and looking beyond staples,” says Ruchira. Earlier this year, Native Tongue entered the Worldwide Mustard Competition organised by The National Mustard Museum, Wisconsin, US, with its own rendition of a mustard condiment that took some inspiration from Bengal’s heirloom pickled mustard relish—Kasundi. The stone-ground mustard flavoured with amba halad or mango ginger, a rhizome from the ginger family, and panch phoron (Bengali five-spice mix), gets a spicy kick from yellow chillies. “The mustard made it to the final five among 65 competing global brands,” Ruchira says.

Saldanha, on the other hand, has taken Bengal’s cherished aam kasundi, a delicious union of pungent, pickled mustard and tart raw mangoes, and cranked up its brio by adding chunks of pickled pineapples. However, he admits to making a mellower version of the original relish to suit diverse palates. At Chutney Collective, Saldanha’s focus is on sustainable cooking and minimizing wastage in the kitchen. The pineapples for his Ananas & Aam Kasundi are first pickled in a fruity vinegar that Saldanha makes with castoff pineapple core, mango seeds and peel, etc., while he sources heaps of discarded prawn shells from his fish vendor to make his own prawn oil, which gives his signature prawn chutney an exciting depth of flavours.

These desi chutneys and podis can, in fact, be used in unusual, new ways—not only as condiments but also as ingredients or flavour enhancers. Native Tongue’s smoked Aam Panna Cordial for instance can double as a salad dressing or jazz up a regular salsa. Chutney Collective’s Instagram page too is brimming with ideas—bhel puri pepped up with fried chicken thecha or sev puri transformed with the umami-rich black garlic and tomato thokku. Saldanha also hosts pop-ups where he drums up special numbers featuring one or more of his chutneys, in unique ways.

Inamke and Rai are at the final stages of bringing their bacon podi to the shelves while Saldanha is all set to launch six new chutneys to mark Chutney Collective’s first anniversary in October, with inspiration from south Indian "touching" (bar nibbles) to Japanese seasoning. The wait is almost over.

To Buy
Chutney Collective, @chutney_collective on Instagram, 300 onwards for 200gms
Native Tongue, on Instagram, 275 onwards for 200gms
Nomad Food Project,, 350 onwards for 200gms
Gautam Krishnankutty, @gonzogarbanzo, 350 onward for 200 gms (approx.)
The Kitchen Project, on Instagram, 350 onwards for 200 gms (approx.)

Also read | Try making a Bombay Duck chutney with this recipe 

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer.

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