Achar Is the Indian Condiment You've Been Missing Out On
Every culture has a catchall condiment—that one sauce you can put on literally anything and it will taste great (think: hoisin, harissa, pebre). For Indians, it’s achar (also spelled achaar), a combo of sliced fruits and vegetables pickled in oil and spices that has the power to vivify even the most tired bowl of rice. For most Indian families, achar is a dinnertime condiment staple. But when I moved into my own apartment in New York a few years ago, achar was notably absent; this is because it’s time intensive to make at home, and most store-bought versions are loaded with salt and preservatives.
And then I found Brooklyn Delhi, a small-batch achar company run by Chitra Agrawal of popular blog ABCD's of Cooking. Finally, someone was creating bottled achar that tasted like it should: fiery, complex and tangy, not to mention made fresh in someone’s home, not mass-manufactured in a co-packing facility. Agrawal does, in fact, make each jar herself at St. John’s Bread & Life, a food pantry in Bed-Stuy.
Agrawal’s achar business started from her blog, which she launched to create a log of her family recipes, adjusting them along the way to be accessible to the everyday home cook. The blog became very popular, and she was soon approached to lead cooking classes and pop-up dinners. At her dinners, she’d always serve various types of achar made from the fruits and vegetables that came from her weekly CSA. "People kept coming up to me and asking if I could sell them, and my husband happened to be a food-packaging designer, so one day, we just decided to go for it," she says. In late 2013, Brooklyn Delhi was born. Today, you can find Agrawal’s achars online, at Whole Foods and in several specialty food stores across the country; also, she just wrote a book, Vibrant India, which details a number of her recipes.
But why the focus on achar? "Most people know about chutney," Agrawal says, "But achar is what Indians really put on everything. It’s an ever-present condiment, like a hot sauce or a Sriracha." She has long been obsessed with collecting all different types of the pickled condiment, from mango to lotus root to lemon: "When I go to India, I scour all the markets, and I’ll get jars of achar from each of my relatives when I see them."
All of Brooklyn Delhi’s offerings (rhubarb, garlic and tomato) are a perfect blend of her Indian background and current life in Brooklyn—old classics updated with modern ingredients. The tomato, my personal favorite, is like a kicked-up tomato paste, with all the bold, savory notes you might find in a roasted tomato, plus chiles, mustard seeds and just a hint of jaggery for sweetness.
For first-time achar users, Agrawal has a few pointers: Eggs are a great way to begin, as are grilled cheese sandwiches and soups. She recently started making pizza at home, and the secret ingredient to her incredibly unique tomato sauce is roasted garlic achar, which adds the kind of depth that her guests can never quite put their fingers on. She also mixes the achar with creamy yogurt to make dips. But that’s only scratching the surface of the possibilities. "It just adds that sour, spicy, savory element to any meal," she says. "It really makes a dish come together."
Priya Krishna is a New York-based food writer by way of Texas. Follow her on Instagram for embarrassing family vacation photos at @PKgourmet.
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