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Twitter was abuzz recently with tomato jokes. Take this one: “Cookery show mein recipe batate hue host ne kaha, namak swad anusar aur tamatar aukat anusar" (detailing the recipe in a cookery show, the host said you should add salt to taste and tomatoes in line with your financial status).

Tomatoes haven’t been this dear in many years.

The kitchen staple that’s usually priced at 20 a kilo in most of India now sells at anywhere between 50-100 a kilo; it’s no wonder cooks are ruffled. Food blogger Aparna Balasubramanian, who lives in Goa, says: “Tomatoes are 60-80 a kilo here but I’m not too affected as I cook mostly Palakkad Iyer fare; most of the time we use tamarind as a souring agent, other than using tomatoes in rasam or sambhar."

Manu Chandra, executive chef and partner, Olive Beach, Bangalore, says fluctuating prices of key ingredients like tomatoes have an impact on recipes. “Most restaurants do go through large amounts of tomatoes except Asian ones. A lot of the larger restaurant groups and hotels work on contract rates with large suppliers that protect them from such fluctuations."

Fortunately, given our gastronomic diversity, tomato substitutes are aplenty. Here is a list:

Amchoor: The dried mango powder adds tang to most dry vegetable dishes or vegetables in a light gravy. Dishes like rajma and chhole also taste good when spiced with amchoor.

Kachampuli: Called gambooge, this sour fruit is used in Malabar cooking, and a potent vinegar made from this fruit is used in Coorg cuisine. This vinegar is a key ingredient in the making of the famous Pandi Curry. You’ll find kachampuli at speciality stores that sell Malabar ingredients or surely at a Malayali or Coorgi friend’s house. Try experimenting with this to add flavour to fish and meat-based curries.

Kokum: It is used widely in coastal Maharashtra, traditionally in sol kadi and kokum sherbet. These are available as dried pods or the moist soft variety. By soaking them in warm water, kokum can be squeezed to make an extract and added for sourness. It is pink in colour and has a mildly sweet tinge to the sourness.

Raw mango: When they are in season, you can use them fresh in dals, rasam and curries. When sun-dried with some salt and chilli powder, they can be used to make achaari dal, paneer and vegetable dishes.

Sorrel (gongura): Andhra cuisine is incomplete without this green leafy vegetable. It is also a part of Arunachali cuisine as well as that of some other North-Eastern states. Gongura is used to make chutneys (served with steamed rice), added to dal and used for gongura pappu and gongura mutton, both classic Andhra recipes. It’s easier to find these greens in open-air markets than supermarkets. Use sorrel like you would use spinach in a dal for a natural sourness.

Sour yogurt: Whisked well, mixed with a spoonful of besan (chickpea flour) and added towards the end of cooking, it adds sourness and body to most gravies.

Tamarind: Used extensively in south Indian cuisine as a base for sambhar, rasam and many other dishes, and in the north for chutneys that accompany chaats, tamarind is no stranger to us. It is easy to entirely substitute tomatoes with tamarind extract in dishes like chhole, where it not only adds sourness but also lends it a rich brown colour. It’s important to simmer after adding tamarind extract until the raw taste goes off.

Vinegars: The most famous Indian vinegars are from Goa, used in cooking vindaloo. A splash of balsamic vinegar adds flavour to a pasta or pizza sauce when used along with tomato substitutes.

Preserved tomatoes: It is impossible to imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes. Though there’s nothing that can replace a freshly sliced tomato in an Insalata Caprese, you can make do with tomato pastes (available in tubes and sachets), canned tomatoes and tomato purées (in tins and Tetra Paks). Indian tomato purée brands can be a tad too sour, so a pinch of sugar balances the flavour.


Chef Manu Chandra recommends substitutes and pairings for three staples

u Dals: Tomato purée, raw mango and tamarind

u Pasta sauce: Canned tomatoes and roasted red bell peppers

u Indian gravies: Tomato paste, vinegar and tamarind

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Updated: 20 Jul 2013, 12:09 AM IST
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