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Sour bombs of the Indian kitchen

Souring agents play an intrinsic role in Indian cuisine. From ‘kokum’ on the west coast and ‘amchur’ in the north, to ‘aamshi’ in Bengal and ‘jolpai’ in Tripura, traditional recipes use them as flavour enhancers—and to add an acidic tone to dishes

Fermented bamboo shoot, Nagaland. (Photo: Chef Joel Basumatari)

Imagine a sambhar without the tanginess of tamarind. Or, a kadhi without the tartness of buttermilk. Indian home cooking often relies on sharp, acidic notes to give body to a dish. Yogurt, tamarind, lime, amsul or kokum and the ubiquitous tomato act as souring agents to balance the robust flavours of Indian food.

Then there is raw mango, which is turned into fruity sour bombs every summer across the country. The East Indian community of Mumbai may boast of a range of vinegars but it is the dried, salted amboshi that “makes pretty much everything sing”, says Mumbai-based journalist and podcaster Simona Terron, adding that it is widely used in seafood, chicken khudi (curry) as well as vegetarian recipes. Unlike its north Indian powdered version, in West Bengal, amchur is characterised by its soft whitish chunks. “In west Midnapore, it is like a summer ritual to prepare amchur in bulk. They are soaked in water for a few minutes and then added to maacher tok, a tangy fish curry cooked with vegetables, and maacher dimer chutney that is made with fish roe,” says Kolkata-based food blogger Sayantani Mahapatra.

'Amchur' used in Bengali kitchens. (Photo: Sayantani Mahapatra)
'Amchur' used in Bengali kitchens. (Photo: Sayantani Mahapatra)

Some of these local souring agents are believed to be sacred to the Indian kitchen—and considered the perfect flavour enhancers in regional cuisine.

‘Vate huli’, Karnataka: The locals of Sirsi in Uttara Kannada district have a long tradition of preserving the summer fruit monkey jack. Artocarpus lacucha grows in the backyard and is used extensively as a souring agent. Due to its short shelf life, the ripe fruit is sliced, sun-dried and powdered for use the rest of the year. “Vate huli podi, or powdered lacucha, is Sirsi’s best-kept secret, and is typically used to add acidity to sambhar and meen gassi, or fish curry. Every kitchen will have a jar sitting on the shelves,” says Shriya Shetty, a Mangaluru-based chef, adding that its underlying citrusy notes resemble the earthiness of tamarind.

‘Vate huli’, Karnataka. (Photo: Shriya Shetty)
‘Vate huli’, Karnataka. (Photo: Shriya Shetty)

‘Ambat chuka’, Maharashtra: With its long, broad leaves, ambat chuka, or green sorrel, is the tangy cousin of spinach. More popularly known as khatti palak, it is sold as a complimentary bundle along with colocasia leaves during the monsoon. “It tames the itchiness of the colocasia and lends a beautiful tanginess to the Maharashtrian seasonal speciality alu cha phatphate or bhaji, which is also prepared during celebratory feasts,” says Ruchira Sonalkar, founder of Native Tongue, an artisanal brand of preserves and nut butters. Ambat chuka is also cooked with peanuts and chana dal with a tempering of mustard seeds, hing (asafoetida) and burnt garlic to make a dal called patal bhaji.

‘Thekera’, Assam: The word tenga, meaning tangy, is indispensable to Assamese cuisine. While local souring agents such as otenga (elephant apple), hog plum and kaji nemu (native limes) rule kitchens, the pride of place is reserved for thekera or Garcinia pedunculataa, a close cousin of the purple mangosteen. The ripe fruit, available before the monsoon, is de-seeded, sun-dried and stored. “Its intensely sour flavour forms the basis of masor tenga, a tangy fish curry, and refreshing dals on hot days,” says Kasturi Barua, a Mumbai-based Assamese home chef who runs Kasos Kitchen.

‘Thekera’, Assam (Photo: Kasturi Barua)
‘Thekera’, Assam (Photo: Kasturi Barua)

‘Anardana’, Punjab: It is sweet and tart with molasses-like depth. It’s hard to imagine a pindi chole without the anardana made from pomegranate seeds. “I have heard stories of my grandmother and her mother in undivided Punjab, collecting the pomegranate and peeling them for hours until their hands turned red. Back then it used to be made with a wild variety, which would be dried on the terrace for 8-10 days,” says Bengaluru-based food consultant Monika Manchanda. Apart from chhole, anardana is used in stuffed dishes such as okra and bitter gourd, chutneys and chicken curries. Manchanda also mentions a family recipe where fish is coated with anardana and spices and shallow-fried in mustard oil.

‘Jolpai’, Tripura: Tripuris take pride in their local souring agents—elephant apple, mesta or roselle leaves, aamrul or wood sorrel, and jolpai or native olives. Raw jolpai has a mouth-puckering tartness and is widely used in fish curries, lentils and chutneys “as it has the ability to neutralise the astringency of the fruit and balance the overall flavour of the dish”, says Sanhita Dasgupta, who grew up in Tripura and runs a delivery kitchen in Delhi called Gusto With Sanhita. Jolpai is also used to prepare a maakha, or a mash where the fruit is boiled and combined with green chillies, a pinch of sugar and mustard oil.

Fermented bamboo shoot, Nagaland: Around May-June, the indigenous communities of Nagaland are tasked with the process of fermenting bamboo shoots. The outer layers are removed and the white inner portion is sliced or grated and bottled to ferment on its own. Over the course of a few weeks, it releases a liquid—acerbic in taste—which is stored separately and added to dishes. Chef Joel Basumatari reveals that a dried version of the shoots is equally treasured. “While the fermented liquid can be used instead of tomatoes to sour chicken and fish stews, the dried shoots impart an intense aroma when cooked with fresh pork,” says the Dimapur-based chef.

Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.

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