Deep Fried: Dear Kasundi, best wishes, Wasabi
Kasundi is a soap opera. I can’t remember the first…
Kasundi is a soap opera. I can’t remember the first time I had it, but I only remember loving this proud Bengali condiment. Firstly, it isn’t Kaa-sundi. It’s Kaa-shoondi. I’d ideally prefer to spell it with an H, thank you very much. Kaa-sundi sounds foreign, like that mustard something every restaurant has been marinating broccoli to salmon to tofu in these days. I know it adds to the global confusion Indian restaurants and pubs love to stir up, to make their menus press release-ready, but a watered down mustard paste isn’t Kaa-shoondi. But, oh well, maybe Kaashoondi is an emoshaan, like they say.
For starters, Kasundi is a pickle. The queen of pickles, a simple Wikipedia search will tell anyone — referenced from Renuka Debi Chaudhurani’s seminal book, Stree Achar — that there are cultural, religious, and social connotations attached to the Kasundi. Also, like most of Indian social history, the practices of making Kasundi is heavily casteist too. It is the third crop to be harvested at the start of spring, has to washed by women in odd numbers facing the east using a dhoti (not a saree) while singing ritual songs, is first presented to the gods along with betel leaves and fruit offerings, obviously widows and menstruating women cannot participate (eye roll), a Brahmin priest takes over the process (setting the time of preparation, lighting the stove to boil the water, all touching responsibilities given that only a brahmin’s touch is deemed pure major eye roll) after the seeds are pounded, and finally, excessive precaution and hygiene is maintained to produce the pickle. A host of spices get pounded along with the seeds, sometimes even unripe green mangoes (which deliver the heavenly Aam Kashundi, a proud companion with every summer lunch). While some varieties only include salt, turmeric, mustard oil, and dry red chillies, others have dry ground spices like cumin, kalo jeere (kalonji or onion seeds), fennel, wild celery seeds (randhuni, a typical Bengali spice), fenugreek, cloves, cardamom, kebabchini, nutmeg, mace, dried mangoes, and dried Indian jujubes (kul, the first fruit of spring, dedicated to goddess Saraswati) used in varying combinations and measurements. The Kasundi is then fermented — a not-so common practice in Bengali cuisine — to allow the spices to fight the bitterness and allow the pungency to bloom. The “jhaanjh”, or pungency, determines the potency of the Kasundi. It is an important religious signifier in a to-be Hindu mother’s baby shower meal, called the shaadh, and has quite a few rules attached to its usage. For example, if a family does not wash the mustard on the specified day in one year, they can’t prepare Kasundi for the next twelve years. While these are stories of back-then, some rituals have trickled down history till today. For example, my family, unbeknownst to anyone, is superstitious about travelling with the pickle.
Unlike these traditional methods and rituals of preparing the pickle from the old days, I have always known the Kasundi to be available in a slender-necked glass bottle. The bottle would have a mustard yellow cap and a mustard yellow paper label that profusely advocated the localness and authenticity of the product. Back when we were growing up, established brands didn’t make Kasundi. Generally, Kasundi from the Bikrampur district of Bangladesh, was deemed a prized possession. I am guessing the quality and taste of the water in that region had something to do with the popularity. At home, the Kasundi was primarily had during the first saag course of lunches. Stir fried spinach and amaranth leaves (both green and the delightful red, that turned the white rice instantly crimson, to our glee) is a common first course during summer lunches. The spicy-pungent Kasundi makes a simple rice-and-leaves portion absolutely irresistible. Bengalis often say “Aami shaag aar Kashundi diye ek thaala bhaat kheye felte paari” (I can have a plateful of rice with leaves if there’s Kasundi for company). The only other occasion when they say the same thing is during Hilsa season (all we need is rice, two pieces of fried Hilsa, and dollops of the fish’s fat). Ceremonial feasts have taught us to start serving the Kasundi as a dip (Bengalis hilariously refer to all dips as “sauces”, a confusing scenario for European cooking. Interesting factoid: people of the erstwhile French colonies in Bengal refer to all gravies as “juices”, a possible colloquialisation of jus, maybe?) along with fish fries and vegetable cutlets and chicken pakoras. I think the moment the Kasundi turned into an addictive dip — way more delectable than ketchup — it had to be mass produced, leading to a dip in quality and flavour (I know what I did there). If it had remained as a condiment only in domestic kitchens, the Kasundi would have been safe from eventual global bastardisation.
The first time I had wasabi, I was an almost-adult. Growing up, Japanese restaurants weren’t exactly that popular in Kolkata. Chinese is the city’s go-to Asian offering, given the history. Bombay introduced me to wasabi. I remember seeing people spluttering around me, blowing their noses, while I was just mildly affected. The wasabi has an effect similar to mustard oil or Kasundi on our nasal tracts. But Bengalis snort mustard oil during winters to keep the sinuses unclogged, so, we, really are made of sterner stuff. My experiences with Wasabi — the fresh paste of a specific variety of horseradish — have been abysmal in India. Firstly, for everyone who doesn’t know, wasabi, originally, has to be freshly grated horseradish — not that green toothpaste most restaurants pipe out of tubes. Also, Wasabi loses its flavour after fifteen minutes of exposure with air. Thirdly, if you are serving wasabi, do it right, or don’t do it at all. That disgusting American substitute with mustard, generic horseradish, and green food colour is a disaster, and anybody who has had the real stuff will know the difference If you can source your sea bass from Chile and your lamp chops from NZ, how about setting a budget aside for some fresh stems? But funnily enough, even with the shitty options available, I have seen people blowing their noses, red-faced, while I ask the attendant to get me some more. I think, it has to do with our regional orientations with heat. Most of Indian heat is derived from chillies. Chillies affect only the tongue. The second option is ginger, which affects the throat. Mustard, and wasabi, work on the nose and sinuses. Although Punjabi food is also mostly cooked in mustard oil, the tradition is fast disappearing. While Bengalis have also traded mustard oil for whiter options, most Bengali dishes are still cooked with mustard oil at homes. The Kasundi, and the wide variety of mustard paste-based dishes keep our sinuses alive. Hence, it’ll take much more than some store-bought wasabi to take us down.
The Kasundi was suddenly discovered by Indian restaurants a few years back, as an interesting addition to their menus. I think restaurateurs sit down and decide to pick one exotic element from each state to add to their modern-Indian roster (often in gel or foam or jus form, eye roll yet again). The Kasundi has been used so frivolously as a marinade, a gel, a foam, and a BBQ drizzle, that I want to host a masterclass to explain that it is not just mustard paste thinned with water. I know it sounds great on your press releases but it’s not the real deal. And you, the special someone, who has a Kasundi Aglio Olio on your menu, you know who you are, and you should be ashamed. Stop trivialising Kasundi to just “spicy” or “pungent” and then thinking of it as a one-note element to play around with. It is not an alternative for ginger or peppers and no, cannot be added to a coconut milk-based dish. Just like how the molagapodi, another recent-discovered restaurant favourite, cannot be used as a rub for pork ribs. But more on that some other day.
I could go on. Kasundi is more than just a condiment. It is a signifier of a traditional meal, of history and the stories of our country’s kitchens. Just like how the wasabi is emblematic of the Japanese experience. While both have found popularity, their true identities might be fast disappearing.