Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: It’s time to ketchup!

Published on Jan 23, 2021 07:13 PM IST

From chutney to mustard to Sriracha, it’s the condiments that add a kick to your food on a regular basis

In India, the only Western condiment we were really familiar with for decades was ketchup
In India, the only Western condiment we were really familiar with for decades was ketchup

Do you dunk your French fries in tomato ketchup?

I know that I sometimes do. If the fries are very good and burst with potato flavour then you probably don’t need to add extra flavour. But most times, ketchup helps.

I thought the fries and ketchup combination was universally accepted till I ordered fries from a McDonald’s in France. They came, not with a little sachet of ketchup, but with a packet of mayonnaise. I asked around and was told that the French like their fries dunked in mayonnaise.

The rejection of ketchup with fries is not unprecedented. At British fish and chips places, they will douse the chips (plumper versions of what Americans call fries) with vinegar.

And many of us, in the East, sometimes like more kick added to our ketchup. I often add a dash of Tabasco to the ketchup and mix it all together before the first chip is dunked.

(Inset) Girija Mirchandani’s Mumbai-based The Kitchen Project does very good artisanal mayonnaise and yellow mustard
(Inset) Girija Mirchandani’s Mumbai-based The Kitchen Project does very good artisanal mayonnaise and yellow mustard

Ketchup is the classic condiment. And every country has its own condiments, often paired with its favourite foods. In the US, it would be odd to eat a hot dog without smearing the sausage with yellow mustard. It is not English mustard but a special milder mustard that is now even called Hot Dog mustard. The English like their roast beef with horseradish sauce, a Wasabi-like paste that can go all the way up your nostrils.

In India, it is traditional to have samosas, pakoras or tikkis with chutney. In Thailand, they rarely put salt on the table. Instead you are encouraged to use Nam Pla (fish sauce) to season your food. In parts of North Africa, harissa (a spicy chilli paste) becomes a standard accompaniment to meals.

Not all cultures are as condiment crazy. My experiences with Chinese restaurants all over the world had led me to regard soya sauce as an essential Chinese condiment, one that was always on the table. In India, we go further. Chinese restaurants will have little bowls of chillies in vinegar and chilli-garlic sauce on all tables.

Not so in China. At many restaurants, the table was absolutely free of all condiments. This may be okay in Sichuan where the food is full of flavour. But in Beijing and Shanghai, I often longed for an umami hit or a dash of hot spice. They did produce soya sauce if you asked for it, but it was difficult to get any condiment that had a kick in it.

How a condiment is defined is complicated. One way of defining a condiment is that it should be an accompaniment that does not look out of place on the table. This definition works well within India where our primary condiments are chutneys and pickles. These are rarely used in cooking and are usually accompaniments to cooked food. It works well in most of America too. You don’t really use ketchup, Tabasco or Hot Dog mustard that often in cooking. These are usually accompaniments that you only need after the food is served.

But it works less well in other countries. Soya sauce does not look out of place on the table in most East Asian restaurants. Yet it is often an important cooking ingredient as well. So it is with Nam Pla, which turns up in nearly every Thai dish but is always placed on the table to add to your cooked food.

One way of explaining it would be to say that umami flavours are as important as salt in some Far Eastern dishes. We add salt to our food while it is being cooked. But it is still an essential condiment on the tables of most restaurants in Europe, South Asia and America.

For us, in India, the only Western condiment we were really familiar with for decades was ketchup. Indian manufacturers made a sweet, brightly-coloured version that many people always suspected was filled out with kaddu.

Priti Bali (inset) of The Earth Kitchen makes a delicious red pepper harissa
Priti Bali (inset) of The Earth Kitchen makes a delicious red pepper harissa

However, in the last decade, the condiment market in India has exploded. The push has come not from ketchup but from mayonnaise, a product that previous generations were only slightly familiar with. Led by two pioneering domestic sauce manufacturers, Veeba and Cremica, who used new methods to make eggless mayonnaise, the sauce market grew exponentially.

You can now get pretty much every Western condiment in a made-in-India form, from Sriracha, the Thai chilli sauce that a Vietnamese expatriate turned into a craze in America, to versions of the classic Japanese roasted sesame Kewpie sauce.

Who is ordering these condiments? A couple of years ago when I wrote about the mayonnaise boom, the top manufacturers told me that the growth of the packed sandwich lunch had contributed greatly to the boom. A previous generation would take rotis and sabzi to work.

But now sandwiches were preferred by school-going children and office workers. The mayonnaise was used as a sandwich spread. As is inevitable in India, people soon started asking for masala tweaks in flavour. New sandwich sauces that tasted more Indian were introduced.

Is a sandwich sauce a condiment? It is not clear if mayonnaise is a condiment to begin with. Yes, the French may dunk their chips in it but it is also widely used in the kitchen to make cold dishes.

This is a familiar problem with French cuisine. A Béarnaise is a sauce, the French will tell you, not a condiment. Hollandaise is also a sauce. But when you put a dab of Béarnaise on the side of a plate that contains a steak, is it not a condiment? When you dunk your asparagus into Hollandaise, is it not a condiment?

I expect that the distinctions will get more blurred in the years to come. For instance, Italians are not big on condiments. But what is a flavoured oil? If they provide chilli oil for you to put on your food, then isn’t that a condiment?

I have been sampling small-production Indian condiments. I tried delicious oils, infused with herbs and with aged Parmesan by Hearth & i, a service run by a classically-trained chef called Megha Jhunjhunwala. I would argue that these were definitely condiments.

Megha Jhunjhunwala (inset), a classically-trained chef, does delicious oils, infused with herbs and with aged Parmesan by Hearth & i
Megha Jhunjhunwala (inset), a classically-trained chef, does delicious oils, infused with herbs and with aged Parmesan by Hearth & i

But then it got more complicated. Is butter a condiment?

I am not sure, though the French do use compound butters (like Maître d’hôtel butter or Café de Paris butter) during service. I had a delightful mushroom butter (shiitake flavour) made by Sunita Pradhan in Mumbai. (The brand is Little Treats.).

We agree that pickles are condiments. But what happens when you turn a pickle into a pate? I enjoyed two unusual pates from Delhi’s Courtyard Memories: meat pickle pâté and chicken pickle pâté. Try them on buttered toast.

And two regular condiments: I had very good artisanal mayonnaise and yellow mustard from The Kitchen Project, a Mumbai company. But my favourite was a delicious red pepper harissa made by Priti Bali of The Earth Kitchen. Priti, who is an accomplished chef, has a range of 20 products and her quality is extremely good.

So ultimately, does it matter if you can call it a condiment or not? I don’t think so. Categories are for losers. Good taste is for winners!

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, January 24, 2021

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