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. His objection? The cuisine of Malaysia does not use enough souring agents according to my very opinionated friend, who had much to say on the subject. “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.
I’m not sure whether the mere inclusion of souring agents is enough grounds 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 qorma 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 or another, 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 also bimbli, a fruit that grows in everybody’s backyard. The first is only used in fish curries, the second only in dishes that contain vegetables and tamarind is only used 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. Slightly to the south, and it’s the land of kodampulli. Kerala, especially in the central part of the state, is where fish tamarind grows. 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 using tamarind to sour fish curries – something that is anathema on 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.
Bengal’s gondharaj lime has no parallel anywhere else in the country – even the Uttaranchali lemons 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 – aamchur for chaat, dry vegetables, dal…. A slightly more sophisticated flavour comes from anardana, pomegranate seed. And I’ve not even mentioned the obvious raw mangoes, lime or yogurt.