There is food and there are legends.
Kasundi, for one, is the stuff of legend for most Bengalis. A dollop of good kasundi, a sauce made of fermented mustard paste, should explode like a bomb inside the mouth on first contact, and establish its potency through watering eyes and cleared sinuses.
The only thing that comes close to impact of this pungent, slightly tart mustard sauce is good Japanese wasabi.
Kasundi, which has been a fixture in Bengali households for generations, has become a commercial culinary darling in the past few years. Christine Manfield, Australian chef, author and gastronomic traveller, makes spiced barramundi in tomato chilli pickle, which takes its inspiration from kasundi. She describes this as a mustard pickle typical of Bengali cooking.
From kasundi scotch eggs in Delhi to Chilean sea bass enveloped in kasundi in Dubai, it seems kitchens across the world have succumbed to its versatility and taste. Australians and New Zealanders love their eggplant kasundi and tomato kasundi.
But for most of us who know the sauce in its current form, it is perhaps prudent to vehemently point out that there is kasundi and then there is kasundi.
Tradition versus modernity
The sauce which is used in world kitchens, recommended as part of Christmas hampers across the Pacific Ocean, sold in every other shop in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park and served generously with fried fish and devilled eggs, would be a far cry from what the likes of my grandmother would identify as good kasundi.
The watered-down version sold in stores lacks the punch and smoothness of the old-school, home-made concoction. Not to mention that any true blue Bengali would baulk at the mention of an eggplant or tomato kasundi (Bengalis are expert baulkers).
Kasundi has been commercially produced for only about two generations now. For a long time before that each family had its own closely guarded process of making it.
I had tried explaining to my grandmother how kasundi is now factory made and easily accessible. At 92, Didubhai often finds it difficult to communicate clearly over the telephone. Yet, the disdain in her voice at the very mention of assembly-line kasundi was unmistakeable. The matter merited no further discussion, she had decided.
In her time, the making of kasundi bordered on the religious, involving a plethora of restrictions and elaborate rituals. So much so, that my mother’s generation, when the number of women who started to work outside exploded, all but stopped making it at home—it was too much of an effort, they say.
Not that every household made it though; in fact, few did. It was an exclusive club, which makes it less surprising that the rest of the world discovered it only recently.
As a child, I have vague memories of glass jars filled with golden goodness sent to us by Didubhai. So pungent was the mix that it would make our eyes water and we were given only minuscule quantities. It was had sparingly and stored with care.
We were never allowed to have it with fish or meat, it was always served over piping hot stir-fried greens or mashed vegetables. Kasundi with crisp batter-fried fish is an experience restricted to commercial eateries.
My grandmother and her friends say kasundi was also the preserve of the affluent—only they had the privilege to use an expensive crop like mustard in such amounts and invest considerable time to turn it into a condiment. Closely guarded codes and rules in the name of hygiene and purity effectively let the elite command exclusive rights over it.
Didubhai, though, adds that it was a way of treating the mustard crop at par with the gods and acknowledging the prosperity that it brought to farmers and households.
Traditions and practices
Every Bengali household had its own version of stree achar—rituals or practices that freely transcended the strictly religious, and adapted according to local beliefs, seasons and folklores. And every occasion— be it a wedding or preparing kasundi—would involve some form of stree achar. Renuka Devi Choudhurani’s famous book Stree Achaar, in fact, dedicates the first chapter to kasundi.
Making kasundi always started on Akshaya Tritiya in the month of Baishakh, the first month in the Bengali calendar. (It’s the same day that now sees full-page advertisements in newspapers by large jewellers, reminding people that it is an auspicious day to buy gold.)
The day also comes right after mustard is harvested and dried. Falling as it does between April and May, it was also optimal weather for fermentation—not too cold to delay the process, nor too hot or humid to spoil the kasundi.
Didubhai reminisces that widows, spinsters and menstruating women, all “impure”, were barred from sullying the pots of kasundi with their touch.
Choudhurani writes that the women in her family were not allowed to make kasundi themselves. It was mandatory that a Brahmin makes it, and Brahmin here also means a male of the caste. The women were allowed to wash, dry and pound the mustard seeds, which were then given to the Brahmins.
Our family’s tradition differs somewhat—a Brahmin’s role was limited to chalking out an auspicious time for lighting the fire, and setting up the auspicious earthen pot filled with water next to the stove. The rest of the process was carried out by the women of the household.
If, in any year, a family failed to wash the mustard, they were not allowed to wash mustard or make kasundi for the next 12 years. So, a particular year, even if they couldn’t make kasundi for some reason, the women would wash the mustard seeds and give them away to a Brahmin family. There were times though, such as in the month of a birth or the year of a death in the family, a household would have to break the yearly ritual of kasundi making.
Even washing the mustard had its codes—groups of married women (in odd numbers) would bathe, wear freshly washed, wet sarees and wash black and yellow mustard seeds while facing east, ideally in pond or river water (washing it under a tap is an acceptable alternative in the modern day). Oddly enough, it had to be washed and strained using a man’s dhoti, not a woman’s saree.
While Hindu beliefs associate odd numbers with auspiciousness and continuity, and facing east with any new beginnings or offerings (since the sun rises from east), I have no convincing explanation for the dhoti.
What essentially differentiated one family recipe from another was the number and the composition of the spices added to the kasundi.
Choudhurani mentions a dozen spices that they added to the kasundi; Didubhai recalls 15-17 spices (an odd number again), including green and black cardamom, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, mace, long pepper, chillies, black pepper and the typically Bengali radhuni (wild celery, or ajmod in Hindi), among others. A generous hand in spicing spoiled the kasundi—balance and moderation were key.
The women sang mangal geet, or auspicious songs, and chanted for wealth, health and well-being while washing. Like all religious offerings, the mustard was brought back into the house accompanied by ululations, and after they are presented to the gods, ghee-filled lamps were lit.
Five varieties of seasonal fruits, two unripe mangoes attached to one stem, betel leaf, betel nut, doob grass and paddy are offered too.
Didubhai recalls that the water used to make kasundi had to be referred to as madhu (honey). A ghee lamp had to be lit next to the stove and doob and paddy was offered to the fire. The dried mustard and spices were pounded and sifted, and once they were mixed with water and salt, the concoction was put in the earthen pots and sealed for two and a half days in a cool place.
One was allowed to touch the earthen pots only after bathing and putting on fresh clothes. Once the mix had slightly fermented, the pots were opened and offered to pregnant women as shaadh. (The ritual involves giving women who have completed two trimesters their favourite foods, along with blessing from their elders.)
The cardinal principle of a Bengali kitchen is that nothing goes to waste. The coarse mixture left behind after sieving the mustard was used to make what is called phool kasundi.
Here, more chillies, turmeric, unripe mango and salt were added to make a grainy, bolder, fuller-bodied and spicier sauce. The rest of the process was similar to regular kasundi (though in many households where it was the Brahmins who made the kasundi, the women would make the phool kasundi).
Traditionally, kasundi was not used in cooking or served with fish or meat, while phool kasundi was used to prepare shukto, the trademark Bengali vegetable stew, and macher jhol, the soupy fish curries. Didubhai is of the opinion that the store-bough ones we get are run-down, industrial versions of phool kasundi.
Return of the K
Till recently, kasundi didn’t really enter my consciousness, barring buying and opening a bottle.
Kasundi is not only about food—it encompasses the shared moments, emotions and gossip exchanged between generations of women.
The most profound wisdom, though, comes from Didubhai on the significance of these rituals these days. “There are no landowners today, nor is it an age when women should not question social diktats,” she says. “So make it because it is a tradition worth preserving. While you do away with the ploys of the society to make women feel inferior in the ritualistic pecking order, don’t do away with the tradition of bonding, sharing and being thankful.”
From my grandmother to me, kasundi has made a long journey—from being sent as gifts to daughters and daughters-in-law, it is being ordered off e-commerce sites. The potency has mellowed down to cater to a wider fan following. The biggest transformation is it has lent itself to experiments and fusion.
Besides serving it with fried finger food, I use it generously in salad dressing, as a marinade for steamed snapper, barramundi or pan-grilled chicken, to add zing to creamy sauces and mashes or as a surprise ingredient in my strawberry salsa.
It never fails to brighten any dull meal. But if I have to be honest, even today, if I can lay my hands on the good old stuff that came out of a Bengali kitchen, I would sparsely and lovingly slather a spoonful of it on wilted greens or mashed vegetables and have it with steaming hot white rice.
Tanushree Bhowmik is a development professional based in New Delhi, with keen interest in documenting and reviving old recipes, ingredients and eating customs. She writes Forktales.in, which is about food that tells stories.