He arrived, 12 years ago in Dubai, ready for a new culinary experience, only to discover that a beloved part of his taste repertoire was missing. Chef Ankur Chakraborty could not find the pungent, tangy Bengali sauce called Kasundi (pronounced as Kashundi) anywhere in the city.
Undeterred, he decided to make some of this eye-watering wholegrain mustard condiment at home. A meal wasn’t complete without this full-bodied fermented sauce, which explodes with flavour in one’s mouth.
“I soaked mustard grains in vinegar with green chillies for a few days and then ground them to a paste,” he says. It wasn’t quite the same as he would get back home in Kolkata, India, but it was close.
This sharp-tasting sauce is a staple for Bengali households, and has been for a few centuries. As Chakraborty says, most often you’ll find a bottle of Kasundi on the table rather than tomato ketchup.
I marinate fish with Kasundi and pan fry it. It’s got everything you need - it’s got the pungency and saltiness. If you want to make it exotic, wrap it in a banana leaf and pan fry it.
It can be enjoyed with just about everything - fritters, cutlets, or even spice up a normal rice-dal meal. It’s the queen of versatility, as you can marinate your meat and fish, dress your salads, and even elevate the taste further by adding a dollop of mayonnaise. It can even make a normal sandwich taste zingier.
Chef Chakraborty adds, “I marinate fish with Kasundi and pan fry it. It’s got everything you need - it’s got the pungency and saltiness. If you want to make it exotic, wrap it in a banana leaf and pan fry it.” He is the executive chef and founder of The Crossing restaurant in Dubai.
Thirty-one-year old Nawrin Ela Huq, a Bangladeshi travel influencer based in Dubai recalls eating a fusion dish - scallops with Kasundi at an Indian restaurant in Jumeirah. “That was just amazing,” she says.
However, there’s a lot more to Kasundi than just being a condiment to enjoy with food. There’s a complex social and cultural history surrounding this sauce, more complicated than the process to ferment it. Everyone has different memories, interpretations and understandings of it.
“A pot of honey” and some mangoes
Kasundi was said to be traditionally used as ‘achar’ or pickle, and eaten with rice, greens and fried food. It was said to be the sauce for the rich and privileged, as only they could have the luxury to invest such time and access to such vast quantities of the mustard crop to transform it into a condiment. “I love the condiment, but it has a loaded history,” explains Delhi-based Indian food historian and researcher Tanushree Bhowmik. The mustard-based sauce was once associated with purity and the higher caste, and could only be made by the women of the family.
Bhowmik, who has witnessed the rituals surrounding Kasundi, explains the stringent rules surrounding the making of it. “It was a religious ritual. The process would begin during Akshay Tritiya [Hindu spring festival] every year and if a household missed making it, they couldn’t make it for the next three years,” she says. Men were not involved in the process at all.
I love the condiment [Kasundi], but it has a loaded history. It was a religious ritual. The process would begin during Akshay Tritiya [Hindu spring festival] every year and if a household missed making it, they couldn’t make it for the next three years.
However, she notes a correlation between the gradual onset of modernity, the financial independence of women by the 1980s, and the fact that Kasundi is no longer being made in Bengali homes. “It stopped with my mother’s generation. It was a change that showed that women had gotten out of this labour, and now had jobs of their own. It became too unwieldy for a modern-set up,” shares Bhowmik. People now buy bottles of Kasundi from the market, rather than actually make it at home.
There was a strong sense of sanctity surrounding the making of Kasundi. It was a fertility ritual as well, shares Bhowmik. The pot of Kasundi was treated like a pregnant woman, in her final trimester. “There’s a ritual in Bengal, where a ‘shaadh’ [baby shower] s done for a pregnant woman in her final trimester, she can eat anything she likes. A shaadh is done for a pot of Kasundi. Green mangoes are offered. It even includes lighting a fire,” Bhowmik adds.
As part of the many rituals surrounding Kasundi, she recalls that the water, which was poured into the ground mustard and spices, was boiled for ten minutes. Women would sing songs around the boiling water. Her grandmother and aunt would never call it ‘water’, instead, they referred it to as a “pot of honey”.
Out with the old, in with the new
Bhowmik started making Kasundi five years’ ago. However, she was conflicted about the rituals and meanings associated with the process. Her grandmother advised her, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Change the rituals.” Bhowmik did so, and it has become almost a community activity, now.
She says, “We started making Kasundi at home. We were insistent that men got involved, including unmarried women. Our friends come home to make it. That’s how we started making it, by removing the taboos. We do it every year now. I send some to my sister and mother.”
She keeps this alive, acknowledging that rituals have a strong role in social bonding, as long as one is able to understand the caste-gender baggage that comes along with it.
However, there are some things she hasn’t been able to do away with. “In our family, Kasundi was never used for meat or fish,” she says. The Kasundi was only served with vegetarian dishes, eaten with stir fried greens. It was never a condiment to be had with snacks.
The pure Kasundi, which is just mustard and spices was kept like a pot of gold - and it was used only for vegetarian dishes. “Once when you are making it, after you’ve ground the mustard and spices, you seal it. The fine powder goes into making that pure Kasundi, and the granular mix is mixed with salt, and green mangoes with it, and that’s used for cooking fish curries. That’s closer to the commercial Kasundi we see today. Pure Kasundi has no green mangoes,” she adds.
As the tales travel…
Ironically, the original Kasundi might not be from Kolkata, West Bengal.
Debatri Bhattacharjee, a history professor from Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi asserts that the most authentic Kasundi is supposed to have originated from Bikrampur in Bangladesh, near Dhaka. “There is no patented brand as such, but what we get in Kolkata, is not from Bikrampur, even though they say it is.”
Chef Chakraborty traces the history of Kasundi back to pre-colonial days in India, when there were no political borders between West Bengal and the present-day East Bengal or Bangladesh. The only line of separation was the Padma river. So those who grew up closer to the river, had different ideas of cuisine. The ones, close to the Arabian sea, (East Bengal) enjoyed a particular kind of cuisine, he says.
In India, Kasundi was used as a probiotic. It was stored in ceramic jars. No salt was ever used in Kasundi in the old days. So after the harvesting of mustard seeds, they would make this product and keep it. It would lie in people’s homes, and used in everything they ate in Kolkata. The idea was that you would eat it all through spring and winter.
People from West Bengal enjoyed the Rohu fish, and those from the East liked Hilsa. The commonality between the two regions was mustard. “Mustard has been so important to Bengalis, as it used to grow there. At that time, they knew how to process mustard. There was no refined oil. The cooking medium was mustard oil. After the mustard was processed for oil, they looked for other means to use it. Then came the idea of making mustard paste. And so, paste fermented with garlic became Kasundi,” he shares.
Kasundi has been known for several probiotic benefits too. It can clear your sinuses and is good for your gut, says Dubai-based chef Bobby Kapoor. “In India, Kasundi was used as a probiotic. It was stored in ceramic jars. No salt was ever used in Kasundi in the old days. So after the harvesting of mustard seeds, they would make this product and keep it. It would lie in people’s homes, and used in everything they ate in Kolkata. The idea was that you would eat it all through spring and winter.”
The many stages of a Bengali meal
While most of India has the popular ‘thalis’, a large plate with different delicacies served together in small servings, Bengalis prefer to have their meals in courses. Traditionally, Kasundi is served in the second course of the meal. Chef Chakraborty explains, “The first course is ghee and rice. The second course is bitter, like neem leaf with eggplants, or spinach stir fry,” he says.
In order to balance the bitterness, Kasundi is used in the second meal. Sometimes, people combine both the meal and mix the two courses. This would then be followed by a fish curry, chutney, dal, fritters, pappad, and chutney. The condiment was also served with evening snacks like fritters and fish cutlets, he adds.
A lot of households have their own recipes of the sauce. The grind can vary from coarse, fine to liquid and depends on the person’s choice. “I particularly like a medium grind that is not flowy, and I finish it off with some raw mustard oil, it adds more pungency,” he says.
Thirty-two-year-old Antara Roy, a Bengali interior designer based in Dubai isn’t a fan of the new kinds of Kasundi. “The newer variations include dried mangoes, dried Indian plum and olives, but there really is no comparison to the original,” she says.
It is a tedious process to make Kasundi and it needs to be made properly, says Chef Kallol Choudhary from the Dubai-based Bengali restaurant Pinch of Spice. He enjoys his Kasundi with paneer steamed in paturi or banana leaf. “Otherwise it’s an accompaniment for all Bengali starters. We prefer Kasundi instead of normal sauce,” he says. It’s central to Bengali cuisine, as most of the dishes are mustard-based, he concludes.
... it’s an accompaniment for all Bengali starters. We prefer Kasundi instead of normal sauce.
A recipe to try at home
Chef Chakraborty shares one of “his quick recipes” for Bengali Mustard Fish. He says, “This recipe is traditionally not done with Kasundi however my love for it did prompt me to create this recipe. Although some purists may say that it is not a traditional recipe… I feel if the recipe works great, it is definitely worth a try!”
- With input for shooting and building the recipes by Falah Gulzar, Assistant Social Media Editor
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