THE COOKBOOK WRITER AND PICKLE MAVEN ON FRESH, SEASONAL INDIAN FOOD
Story and Photograph: Rohan Kamicheril
hitra Agrawal is on a mission to get achaar into American kitchens.
Her Indian pickles, which she gives their Hindi name, and sells under her Brooklyn Delhi label, grew out of her penchant for preserving CSA windfalls using her family’s traditional recipes. Her products (which have won acclaim from places like Food and Wine and the New York Times) include her original Tomato, Garlic, and Rhubarb-Ginger achaars, as well as the more recently added curry mustard and curry ketchup.
But Agrawal also tackles Indian food in another, more personal way, through her long-running blog, The ABCD’s of Cooking, where she talks about her passion for documenting her family’s cooking traditions and for New York’s greenmarkets, and the way that sustainability and seasonality have inspired her through the years. She’s also the author of the cookbook Vibrant India, a loving portrait of the through-lines between her maternal family’s South Indian cooking and the fresh, seasonal cuisine that Agrawal herself strives for in her Brooklyn kitchen.
I’ve long wanted to talk to Agrawal about her take on contemporary Indian food culture—in the US and in India. Largely because she’s such a wonderful cook and writer, but also because of the fascinating place she inhabits in the conversation around food. As a writer she embraces tradition, regionality, innovation and is a tireless advocate for the complexity of Indian food. But writing for an eager audience of Indian food aficionados is different from selling an Indian product to the average American supermarket shopper, and I’ve been intrigued for years by the relationship between these two modes of telling the story of Indian food.
Agrawal embodies a heartening mix of idealism and practicality. Her writing on food embraces local culture, family, and memory in thoughtful and thoroughgoing ways. And the success of her achaars is an encouraging sign of the inroads that Indian food is making into the notoriously fickle American food market. Our talk veered between Bangalore’s vegetable markets and its itinerant cucumber sellers and the difference between the Indian food that you get in home kitchens and the kind you find in restaurants. And though she’s frank about the logistical and cultural challenges of making a household name out of an unfamiliar Indian condiment like her achaar, she’s almost unstintingly optimistic and energetic about the project. Eager and impatient, she’s forging ahead, winning fans as she goes, all on board for her new style of bright, vegetable-driven Indian cooking and the sunny, achaar-filled future that goes with it.
ROHAN KAMICHERIL: Let me start by saying that I love Brooklyn Delhi. I love what you do with the products, and I also love what you’ve done with your cookbook and blog .Can you tell me how you got from one to the other?
CHITRA AGRAWAL: I started blogging in 2009. I was using the site as a way to explore my identity as an Indian-American—but through the lens of food. It started out as this mix of foods that I love to eat, but inspired by Indian cooking techniques and ingredients.
RK: And did Brooklyn Delhi pre-date the book?
CA: Actually, Brooklyn Delhi and the book sort of started at the same time. I developed the recipes for Brooklyn Delhi while writing The ABCD’s of Cooking, I remember I had made a rhubarb achaar because there had been rhubarb in my CSA share. I actually don’t love sweet things, so I couldn’t do what people usually do with rhubarb. So I thought, you know what—I’ll make an Indian pickle with it! So I used one of my grandmother’s recipes, which she would have used to make a lime or mango pickle, and just applied it to rhubarb. And then I made a gooseberry achaar, and a garlic achaar. I made achaar from all my CSA produce because, even in India, you cook with what’s seasonal.
CA: And I was totally naïve when we first started packaging and selling it. Maybe we shouldn’t even have called it achaar but we didn’t do any market research. So that meant that we had to educate people about what achaar is, which was complicated, because even for a lot of Indians, achaar is an unfamiliar word. They usually know it by another regional name.
RK: Right. Like in Kannada it’s uppinkayi.
CA: I grew up calling it uppinkayi or achaar because my mother’s from the south and my father’s from the north—or just pickle. But we decided not to go with pickle because then people would be expecting a dill pickle.
"Writing this book was awesome because I could keep visiting India and working in the kitchen with my aunts."
RK: A lot of the recipes in the book are from family members. Was working on the book an interesting way to get back in touch with them and to get recipes from them?
CA: Absolutely. It was a way for me to reconnect with a lot of my aunts and even my uncles. Growing up here, and being of Indian descent, there’s always a divide between you and the older generation. So this was a way for me to bridge that gap. And now I feel like I have more of a connection with my aunts and uncles. We email back and forth and this is sort of a language that we can all speak. Writing this book was awesome because I could keep visiting India and working in the kitchen with my aunts.
RK: Do you find that there’s often some confusion when you try to study Indian food in India? Do you think, because cooking is often women’s work, that people see it as something that can’t be treated academically?
CA: Maybe it’s just that it’s something that’s traditionally passed on orally. Interestingly, my dad is actually really into cooking. And he learned a lot of what he cooks from his mother. But I also think that he’s an anomaly, because not a lot of Indian men cook. His philosophy, though, is that traditions are not passed down. It’s really the next generation that needs to take the initiative and the interest to continue them. And as to whether it’s treated academically…
RK: Well, maybe academic is the wrong word. I suppose what I mean is that because its women’s work it often gets treated less seriously. I feel like whenever I go to India and I talk to women cooks, they’re often surprised by the fact that I’m interested by what they do in the kitchen.
CA: My mom definitely did keep notes on recipes. She had a torn little notebook with her mother’s recipes that she would reference. She would keep it in a drawer and she would bring it out from time to time. And she also has a lot of airmail letters that her aunts would write her with recipes on them, in Kannada—just stacks and stacks of airmail letters—
RK: The blue ones?
CA: Yes! So that was one way that recipes were handed down. But often with Indian food it’s not a precise thing. One of the challenges in writing the book was, how do you measure something that sometimes is just about feel. Or maybe it’s about the pot that you’re using, or it’s the ingredients. You kind of have to be okay with this approximation.
RK: And adaptability, and the fact that it will have to change.
CA: I remember when I was in college my mother would actually note down recipes and email them to me. My mom actually comes from a scientific background, too, so maybe that’s where this tendency to write things down comes from. But still, she’d say a spoon of one thing, a spoon of something else. And I’d have to interpret what she meant by that.
"One of the challenges in writing the book was, how do you measure something that sometimes is just about feel."
RK: Like what kind of spoon she had in mind.
CA: Right?! (Laughs)
RK: It’s like when my mom tells me to use a cup and I ask her if she means a metric cup and she says, no, like my coffee cup or my tea cup.
CA: My grandmother used recipes that had ingredients listed in ladles. But how big was her ladle? I don’t know!
RK: The other thing I really liked about the book was—having myself grown up in Bangalore—it’s really nice to see so many little scenes from the city. You talk about Subbamma Angadi, and you have so many pictures of the city, too. Can you talk a little bit about what the city has meant for you in terms of developing your idea for the book, and for your own cooking, too.
CA: The city was important for me because that was where my parents met, and my mother’s family is so entrenched in Bangalore. I look upon the city fondly because it gave me a way to reconnect with my family. For a lot of people, their whole families are here in the US, and accessible, and I sometimes feel like I missed out on that. Bangalore brought those pieces together. And it was interesting to see how the food in Bangalore just tasted different from what my mom made at home. In the US you use whatever you have available to you. But going back to Bangalore I was able to taste things the way my mother had tasted them growing up—it just brought things full circle for me.
RK: I love the fact that you mention khara buns, which, to me, are so quintessentially Bangalore. Are there other places in Bangalore that you really like to visit when you’re there?
CA: I think I’m a little bit of a dosa head, so I definitely will frequent Vidyarthi Bhavan—
RK: Oh god, yes!
CA: And CTR, and of course old school places like MTR. And then all the snacks at Subbamma Angadi, shavige bhath at Meena Stores. There’s just so many places.
RK: Connected to your love of dosas, I have to say, I really love your recipe for dosas in your book because it fully engages with the question of wild fermentation and this thing that Indians—and especially south Indians—do with lentils that not a lot of other cuisines do, which is to activate the naturally occurring yeasts in them and use that as a leavening agent. It highlights the importance of technique in Indian food, which is something that people don’t talk about nearly enough. Do you encounter that kind of attitude when you’re talking to people about Indian food?
CA: Definitely. I think there’s a barrier. I think Indian cuisine has an enigmatic aura for a lot of people. I don’t know what it is exactly—perhaps it’s the new ingredients. And with this book, it’s South Indian ingredients, so it’s even more unfamiliar to most people. People in the US are used to eating North Indian food. Curry leaves, for example, are not as easily accessible here. So if you’re interested in Indian cooking, not only do you have to be willing to go the extra mile and learn about it, but you have to be able to get those ingredients, too. And I hear this from a lot of people, especially when I’m teaching a cooking class. So I always make sure to show people how you can make a number of different dishes with just a few ingredients. If you have black mustard seeds, curry leaves, asafetida, and dried red chillies, you can make a lot of different dishes.
"I always make sure to show people how you can make a number of different dishes with just a few ingredients."
RK: And a lot of those ingredients are fairly shelf stable so you don’t have to worry about them going off.
CA: Right. And that’s the way that my mom taught me. Those were the building blocks of a lot of her South Indian cooking. And that’s what I talk about in the book. It actually isn’t that hard. It’s just that you need to have these ingredients on hand. And once you have them, then you can really make a lot of different things.
RK: In a way, the fact that your book really just deals with everyday cuisine makes it sort of revolutionary. Was that an aim for you—to create a portrait of how your family actually ate?
CA: Definitely. And that has always been my perspective—from day one of blogging. These are recipes that anyone can make, and they’re accessible, and they’re very different from what you get in restaurants. This is real food, food that people actually eat. There’s a time and place for the food that people eat in North Indian restaurants, too. I look at that food as a guilty pleasure. In a way, I don’t even look at it and think, that’s Indian food [laughs]. It’s something else altogether.
RK: True, because a lot of North Indians would probably look at it and say that that’s not really their food either. Home food and restaurant food are just two entirely different things.
CA: One thing that I’ve realized, through writing this cookbook and writing about this style of food, is that there is an audience for it—one that is looking to discover and to learn. But on the flip side, I also run a food business, and I have to deal with grocery stores and supermarket shoppers.
RK: The supermarket is such a powerful medium through which to teach people, but it comes with a lot more caveats. How do the audiences for your book and for your products differ?
CA: I’d say that someone who’s buying a cookbook—an Indian cookbook—is looking to learn something, and they’re more exploratory in what they’re doing. As for the supermarket shopper—I think that activity is a lot more habitual. I know that when I’m shopping I have tunnel vision. There are certain things that I buy and I rarely deviate from them. It’s a harder audience to crack. You have to meet them halfway, and give them something that they’re looking for but with a little bit of an angle to it. And hopefully that will get them interested to go deeper. But it’s a slower process.
RK: Especially when you’re trying to bring something new to the table.
CA: It is an uphill battle. There are definitely people who are drawn to the flavor of the achaar—buyers and food critics—but if it’s on the shelf and people don’t know what it is, they’re not going to try it. They have no sense of what it’s going to taste like, or how they’re going to use it—you have to do a lot of food demonstrations as a way of promoting the product, but that’s a tough thing to do when you’re just one person.
"In Bangalore, you just cannot ignore the markets—the vegetable and produce markets especially. It is such a part of the city, and such a part of how people eat."
RK: On a more positive note, I wanted to talk to you about local, seasonal produce. Which means so much to you, as you say in the book, but which also means a lot to traditional Indian cooks.
CA: I think this is true of most cultures and in so many cities, but in Bangalore, you just cannot ignore the markets—the vegetable and produce markets especially. It is such a part of the city, and such a part of how people eat.
RK: And it really is the best produce you can get. If you go to the supermarket the produce just isn’t going to be as good.
CA: Totally. There are even vendors just walking down the street selling cucumbers or whatever, yelling out whatever they’re selling.
RK: Oh yeah, definitely—“Southekayi, southekayi!”
CA: [Laughs] Exactly! And it’s all a part of the experience. I think that South Indian cooking is just so dependent on the freshness of the produce you use. It’s a very fresh cuisine and I think that definitely affected the way that my mom cooked when she got to the US. We would go to farm stands and pick up produce. To this day she’s a snob about the quality of the produce that she uses in her cooking because it makes all the difference. Because very often that’s the main thing—you make a string bean curry and it’s basically just string beans, so those string beans better be good! It’s been great to see how people are embracing the greenmarkets more here in New York, and CSAs, too. In a way, that energy has served as an inspiration for the book. I like taking the local produce that you can get here in New York and applying these Indian cooking techniques to them. It really highlights how the quality of your produce is really what makes a dish shine—especially with vegetarian food.
RK: You have a section in the book where you talk about your family’s vegetarianism. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to you and how it informs how you cook?
CA: I’ve never eaten meat or fish in my life and that’s just the way that I was brought up. It’s funny because I’ve been asked this question before, but I’ve just never questioned it. Maybe it’s because the food that we ate at home was so flavorful and so good that I wasn’t really curious about experimenting beyond that? It is weird, though, because I am so into food and into trying new things. But I do think there’s a complexity of flavors in a lot of Indian cooking that makes up for the fact that there’s no meat in it. My husband is from the Midwest and of course he grew up eating meat. But he’s adopted our style of cooking and our style of eating, too. And he always says, it’s like I don’t even miss the meat when I’m eating food like this. The flavors are so bold and they’re so complex and you don’t really need anything more!
There was a time in my life when I thought that maybe I should try meat, or try fish. It would certainly make my life easier if I ate meat or fish. But I compare it to my name. My life would be easier if my name were easier to pronounce but I’m not going to change my name—that’s who I am!
"I compare it to my name. My life would be easier if my name were easier to pronounce but I’m not going to change my name—that’s who I am!"
RK: There’s also such a profound lack of understanding about what vegetarian food can do. In order to make vegetarian food more appealing to people, a lot of Americans tend to go over the top when they make vegetarian food. So much of it is fried, or it’s sweet, or it’s just generally excessive. And what I love about your book is that it’s very down-to-earth. The recipes are very simple but they’re impactful because they treat these vegetables in a way that brings out the best in them.
CA: The other thing about Indian food and vegetarian food that people don’t get, is it’s very modular.
RK: I notice the gesture you’re making with your hand—were you going to bring up eating with your hands?
RK: Because that’s a whole other question I wanted to ask you.
CA: It’s something I often do during my cooking classes. We’ll make a number of dishes and then I teach students how to eat with their hands. That’s the only way that you can really experience Indian food fully. There’s something that happens when these flavors get mixed by hand on your plate.
RK: It’s textural.
CA: It adds something to the taste. The kind of vegetarian food that is made and eaten in restaurants—those dishes usually subscribe more to the Western idea of meat-starch-veg. But Indian vegetarian food has been whole for centuries, using this concept of modularity. I think that’s something that more people need to understand.
RK: I think it’s very ingrained. If you just have a plate of vegetables many Americans will ask, is that a meal?
CA: Yes! It is!
RK: Exactly, if you want to eat it and it’s nutritious and it tastes good—why can’t that be a meal?
CA: It’s just a different way of thinking that needs to be put out there.
RK: The other thing I wanted to ask you about was the use of the Kannada names for dishes in the book. Was that a conscious decision?
CA: Definitely. The book is a very personal reflection of my mom’s family and I wanted to highlight the Kannada language. A lot of the books that deal with South Indian cooking use Tamil names—
RK: Or, frustratingly, Hindi names!
CA: I know! Although I should say that some of the ingredients listed in the book are in a variety of languages based on how they’re sold in stores. In Patel Brothers, for example, which is a Gujarati store, the names are often in Gujarati or Hindi. I struggled with that because I didn’t want to put a name in the book that people couldn’t identify at the grocery store. But I did stay true to the names when it came to the titles of the dishes.
RK: If you’re a publisher of American cookbooks, you have the option of saying, this is the standard American way of saying this, but in India there’s no standard way—uddina bele is one thing in the south, another thing in the north. Jaggery is one word in the north it’s another word in the south.
CA: It really does complicate things, especially when you’re trying to teach people a brand new style of regional Indian cooking, because they’re often more familiar with the North Indian or Hindi names. And even if they’re familiar with the south, they usually know Tamil names, so you’re just really confusing people now [laughs]. But I try to break it down so that people understand that regionality is something that extends further than just north versus south. Sometimes it’s south versus south, too.
RK: So do you think you’ll do another book?
CA: [Sighs then laughs.] I would like to—I really would like to! But I think I would have to do a bit more thinking about what specific angle I’d take. Before I wrote Vibrant India, I had started writing a cookbook proposal. But in working on it I realized that I didn’t quite know yet what I wanted to write about. It was only after experimenting and cooking around that I realized that I wanted to do something on South Indian cooking using local ingredients. But I had to cook and think my way through to that specific angle. So only time will tell, as I make more food, or make more products, where that next topic will come from and what it will be. I think that’s the best kind of product and the best kind of writing—the kind that comes from just working through it.