Just like every Bollywood movie needs a scene that makes absolutely no sense, every party needs some form of “chips and dip”. They are the easiest things to put together, can be made ahead of time, and don’t need to be reheated. They also give you loads of options to let your imagination and creativity run wild. So if you’ve had enough of serving plain ketchup with potato chips, this column will give you plenty of ideas to come up with your own interesting dips for the next time you have friends over.
First, let’s take the simple stuff—the “dippers”. By this, I mean things you can dunk into your dips. Potato wafers are the most common, of course, and you can find them in any store, but there are lots more you can use. Breadsticks (‘‘grissini” if you want to be fancy), banana chips, corn chips, tapioca chips, crackers and firm flatbreads such as pita, tandoori roti and focaccia (just cut them into smaller pieces) are all excellent candidates for the job. Want more options? You can flavour most breads with spices and herbs to create interesting variations. So focaccia can be flavoured with rosemary and olive oil, tandoori rotis can be brushed with butter and garlic or chaat masala, and breadsticks can be made tastier with some basil and parmesan cheese and baked. Want healthier options? Many vegetables can be cut into long strips and used as dippers. Firm and crunchy vegetables are best for this. Carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, celery and radish are just a few examples. It’s a great way to follow mum’s “eat your vegetables” advice and not gain a truckload of calories.
Now we need to make some tasty dips to go with those. Let’s try to work out a few simple formulas for dips so you’re not restricted to just the examples I give, but can make your own fun variations. For simplicity, I divide dips into three kinds:
Smooth and creamy: Dips like hummus and cream cheese spreads fit into this category.
Chunky: Guacamole and salsa, for instance.
Smooth with chunky bits: A hybrid of the two—tartare sauce, for instance, has mayonnaise with chopped gherkins, capers and tarragon. (No, these are not culinary school classifications; they just help you think in a more structured manner.)
Smooth and creamy dips offer heaps of variations, sumac, chipotle and numerous other options.
The liquid base: This forms the bulk of the dip. You can use any kind of thick liquid for this—sour cream, cream cheese, yoghurt and pureed vegetables can all work. Usually, the liquid base has a mild flavour to act like a canvass for layering other flavours.
Base flavour: Upon our canvas of the liquid flavour, we can add stronger flavours such as chilli, garlic, ginger, sesame, etc. This gives more personality to the dip. Be careful not to go overboard with them, however. We need all our ingredients to work in balance.
Spices can further enhance the base flavour and give the dip layers of taste.
Acid: No, not sulphuric acid or its cousins. I’m talking about lime juice, orange and other fruit juices, and flavoured vinegars. These will brighten the flavours in your food and help cut through some overbearing richness. They are generally used in small amounts.
Herbs: With their floral tones, herbs can provide some contrast to the palate and round off the other flavours. Again, a little goes a long way.
Let’s try to make a little table with examples, shall we?
Liquid Base: Mayonnaise, cream cheese, yoghurt, ketchup, fruit purees, vegetable purees, sour cream, chilli sauce.
Base flavour: Chilli, ginger, garlic, mustard, honey, sesame paste, peanut butter, strong cheeses like blue cheese, spring onions, strongly flavoured oils like olive oil, fruit and vegetable purees (yes, in smaller amounts, they can be used in a different role), capers, olives, gherkins.
Spices: Chilli powder, cumin powder, coriander powder, amchur, chaat masala, paprika, pepper, star anise, zatar, sumac, chipotle and numerous other options.
Acid: Plain vinegar, cider vinegar, lemon and lime juice, orange juice, pineapple juice, tamarind, kokum.
Herbs: Basil, coriander, mint, dill, rosemary, tarragon, thyme, lemongrass, parsley, marjoram, oregano.
Now if we combine things from each list, we can come up with lots of options for dips. Just remember the thumb rule of contrast: don’t layer strong flavour with strong, and weak with weak.
Want an example? Let’s take hummus, the popular Middle-Eastern dip. We’ll take ingredients from each list and make it work. So we have chick pea puree as our liquid base, garlic, olive oil and sesame paste (tahini) from the base flavour, cumin as the spice, lime juice as the acid, and a touch of parsley as the herb. Now we just whip together some chick peas with garlic, stir some olive oil and lime juice into it (don’t forget some salt), and top it with a wee bit of cumin powder and parsley. Simple, isn’t it? Or whip together some sour cream or mayonnaise, blue cheese, garlic, onion powder, vinegar and some mint, and you’ve got a minty blue cheese dip. Or combine hung yoghurt, garlic, olive oil, cucumbers, lemon juice, salt and dill, and you’ve got Tzatziki, a Greek dip. Don’t stop there; make your own flavoured versions of these (not terribly authentic, but still fun.)
As for chunky dips, the only real difference is that instead of using a liquid base, you will probably use chopped vegetable bits. So salsa is just chopped tomatoes, onions, fresh red chillies, garlic, lime juice, salt and coriander leaves. Want variations? Change the vegetables. Guacamole is essentially a salsa where the tomato is replaced with smashed avocado. Want more variations? Replace the chopped veggies with chopped fruits like mango, pineapple, orange, papaya and even watermelon. Want still more variations? Change some herbs and seasonings. So you can end up with something like pineapple jalapeño basil salsa. (Yes, I just came up with that, but it’s tasty.)
Is your imagination working yet? If not, stare at the table above for a little longer and some unusual combination will probably come to mind. Before I go, remember that dips are best made a few hours ahead of time and refrigerated. This will give ingredients time to blend their flavours together better. And coincidentally, also reduces last-minute headaches for you. That’s a win-win in my book.
Madhu Menon is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer. He is on Twitter at @madmanweb
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