Why sour is so sweet

Why sour is so sweet
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First Published: Fri, May 29 2009. 08 53 PM IST

Sour power: Tomato is one of the souring agents used across India.
Sour power: Tomato is one of the souring agents used across India.
Updated: Fri, May 29 2009. 08 53 PM IST
My friend Karan has a strong opinion on almost everything. So it didn’t surprise me at all when he trashed my plans to try out a new Malaysian place in town. Malaysian cuisine, he maintained, does not use enough souring agents. “Take, for example, a tandoori chicken with one important condition: Do not add yogurt in the marinade. When you serve it, do not add the wedge of lime on the side, but add the onion rings and coriander and mint leaves. What are you left with?”
He had made his point.
Sour power: Tomato is one of the souring agents used across India.
I’m not sure whether the mere inclusion of souring agents is enough ground to violently dislike one cuisine or another, but I will say that you can’t be too skilled in adding them, just like you can’t be too beautiful or too rich.
You don’t want a situation where your teeth are set on edge by the sourness, but try leaving out the lemon from a mulligatawny soup, the yogurt from a korma or the tamarind-tomato blend from an Andhra fish curry, and you’ll see what I mean.
From north to south, our country bristles with souring agents that are used by one community and are not heard of by others. So, in Goa you have binni chi sollan or kokum, the dried berry of a tree that grows in parts of the Konkan coast, and bimbli, a fruit that grows in everybody’s backyard. The first is used only in fish curries, the second only in dishes that contain vegetables. Tamarind is used only to sour preparations of red meat, never seafood. Real Goan vinegar is a thriving cottage industry but I’ve never found anything like it elsewhere.
From Coorg comes the spectacular kochampulli. Dark, smoky and with a depth of flavour that reminds me of Italy’s Aceto Balsamico, it is probably the only vinegar assertive enough to stand out in a pandi curry (a traditional pork curry). Slightly to the south, it’s the land of kodampulli (a kind of tamarind).
Kerala, especially the central part of the state, is where you find fish tamarind. Sun-dried, then smoked and thus preserved for a year, the smokiness of the kodampulli is intensified when cooked in earthenware vessels.
In Tamil Nadu, nobody has the slightest hesitation in using tamarind to sour fish curries—something that is anathema in certain parts of the west coast. In Andhra Pradesh, a double whammy is the norm: Tamarind and tomatoes are cooked together to spectacular effect, especially in the state’s many stunning aubergine preparations.
West Bengal’s gondharaj lime has no parallel anywhere else in the country—even the lemons from Uttarakhand lack the fruity intensity. Uniquely in the country, Bengalis have no hesitation cooking fish with curd, as in doi maach.
North India has its dried, powdered mango—amchur for chaat, dry vegetables or dal. A slightly more sophisticated flavour comes from anardana—pomegranate seed. And I’ve not even mentioned the obvious raw mangoes, lime or yogurt.
Tomato Khatta
6 tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 pods of garlic, crushed
1 tsp jaggery
3 tbsp oil
A pinch of turmeric
Heat the oil in a pan; toss in the mustard seeds and then mix in the turmeric. Add the tomatoes and garlic, stir-frying till the tomatoes soften completely, adding a little water if required. Mix in the jaggery, check for sweetness. This can be served cold.
Recipe courtesy Laxmi Parida’s Purba: Feast from the East
Write to Marryam at travellingtiffin@livemint.com
Samar Halarnkar’s column, Our Daily Bread, will return next week.
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First Published: Fri, May 29 2009. 08 53 PM IST