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A Dab of History in your condiment

When I received a bottle of 'kasundi' from a dear family friend, I placed it in my condiment cupboard in the kitchen. Somehow, it stood out apart from all the others and I really didn’t know why. I had tried this delicious pungent condiment during my trip to Kolkatta at the “Anadi Cabin” where I savored the Fish Kabiraj, a fried fish cutlet generally eaten as a snack on the way home from work. Little had I known this condiment that was served with it, has a very interesting origin. It cannot be taken for granted.

Many refer to it as a sauce, which it isn’t. I tried to dig out as much information as I could, as surprisingly many food historians and food writers haven’t mentioned this particular condiment in their lists of famous condiments in India. I really wonder why?

Kasundi or ‘ achaar ‘, is a pickle or a chutney, made out of mustard seeds,salt, turmeric, and water. But the real story is who actually got to prepare it and how.

Many many decades ago,  in Bengal, this condiment was a symbol of a huge class divide between the Zamindaars or Raj Badis, the elite in Bengal, and the lower class. Only upper-class women were allowed to prepare this condiment. In a very ritualistic way, the mustard was segregated by them, ground, and then prepared in an earthen pot, generally the addition of mustard oil increased its shelf life.

Kasundi at Anadi Cabin , Kolkatta

A connoisseur of Bengali cuisine, Renuka Devi Chaudhurani refers to Kasundi as ‘ Stree Achar’ as according to her the “women involved in its preparation endured endless chauvinism and restrictions.”

Mustard was very expensive and only the rich could afford to invest money and time in it. So the upper-class women were given the responsibility of picking the mustard usually after January/ February(moth of Baisakhi) in groups usually singing ritual songs, segregating the good quality ones, and were allowed to use only dhotis to strain the mustard and not a saree (mind you!). Mensurating women and windows weren’t allowed to partake in this ritual nor families which had endured a death. If a family failed to prepare it within a given duration then they were barred from preparing it for 12 years. In every step of its preparation, it reeked of patriarchy and a huge class divide.

When the mustard would be placed in earthen pots for fermenting, one could touch it only if bathed. Once the mix was slightly fermented, it was offered to pregnant women and the water used in its preparation had to be referred to as “Madhu” or Honey.

It was the queen of pickles …and over the years as progressive thoughts seeped into the social fabric of Bengal, it has become a common ingredient in Bengali households, now even sold commercially. Next time you do take a trip to Kolkatta, make sure to pick up this prized possession, a piece of history as I would call it.

Eaten with sautéed greens and rice, fried snacks or finger foods, now commonly seen in salad dressings and in marinades of Steamed Bhekti and Chicken. Known to clear nasal congestion in seconds, this pungent and piquant condiment has come a long way and now stands as a prized possession on my shelf. Some foods leave behind legacies that are painful to acknowledge and can have a lasting influence on your outlook towards life … Kasundi for me is one such condiment.

Many cultures have condiments that have stood the test of time…endured much and still stand in many kitchens around the world, some reminding us of the flora and seasons of our lands and some seeped in cultural practices. There are many condiments that have stories to tell. Just a few notable ones that caught my attention;

1. Tkemali (accurately written t’q’emali  ): A tart, fruity salty, sweet, and spicy plum sauce from Georgia prepared from sour unripe green plums from the Tkemali tree that grows wild in western Georgia in the Caucasus generally signaling the start of spring. Every Bodega market sells this sauce in repurposed soda water bottles.

2. Harissa: This Tunisian or North African chili paste is used to spice up stews and other dishes. originating from the word: Harissa, meaning to pound in Arabic, and means, break into pieces as shoppers at the Tunisian souks watched it pounded while-You wait. It is predominantly made of Baklouti red peppers, which were originally introduced by Spanish and Portuguese colonizers in the 15th and 16th Century in the Maghreb region i.e Northwestern Africa, currently, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Mauritania. These peppers are roasted and mixed with olive oil and salt and used.

3. Monkey Gland Sauce: Even if you aren’t South African, don’t bat an eyelid while being asked to be served this sauce over your steaks or burgers. There are many stories of origin behind the name and origin of this sauce. Some believe, it was named after a steak dish enjoyed by a famous Russian born French scientist famed for his experiment of grafting monkey testicles onto the testicles on impotent men and was a guest at the Savoy hotel in London and was brought over to South Africa by the waiter who served him this dish. Others believe it was borne out of frustrations of chefs in Johannesburg at the old Carlton Hotel who got offended by guests dousing food in ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and chutney. So they put these together and named it monkey gland. Whatever the stories are, this sauce is made from Worcestershire sauce, onions, fruit chutney, tomato, balsamic vinegar, tobacco, and sugar.

4. Banana Ketchup: Due to the shortage of tomatoes during World war 2, bananas were used to prepare ketchup in the Philippines with vinegar and sugar. A very popular condiment accompanying hotdogs, barbeques, hamburgers, and French fries.

5. Serundung: From Java in Indonesia is a traditional condiment which is a mix of pounded spices and seasonings such as onions, garlic, chilies, Asian bay leaves, coriander, galangal, tamarind, turmeric, and sugar, fried and mixed with roasted grated coconut and enriched with peanuts. It is sprinkled on dishes like sticky rice, ketupat-a java rice cake packed in a bamboo casing, and Soto soup- an Indonesian chicken noodles soup.

In Malaysia, this term refers to meat floss and a version can be mixed with coconut – a slice of dried meat that has a light and fluffy structure that originated in China, which was used to garnish over dishes that were meant to keep for months at room temperature and not spoil by a Bendari or a cook on Malay Navy Ships for its soldiers. The term “ bendari” is still used today by the navy and as a mark of respect, during festivals, the Malays serve these dishes in remembrance of the soldiers. In some places, prospective brides have to put their cooking skills to the test by preparing these.

So, next time, whenever you pick up a condiment to spice up your meal or see it decorated on tables of restaurants, honor them, as we dab them onto our plates.

Pictures: All the pictures of Kasundi are copyright of my blog

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