Chitra Agrawal’s Amazing Tomato Achaar

Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews

A symphonic set of Indian flavors made and bottled in Brooklyn

Harissa, lutenitsa, tomato chutney, Sriracha, salsa, ketchup … the versatility and vitality of pepper- and tomato-based condiments like these seems to be universal. In the same way that most every culinary culture has some form of bread that they rely on for daily eating, so too has nearly every culture, in the last few hundred years, come up with some form of pepper and/or tomato accouterment to add to an array of dishes. Tomato Achaar is one (of many) entrées into this conversation. This one has its roots on the Indian subcontinent, but is carefully cooked and bottled in Brooklyn.

While it’s easy to forget, 500 years ago, tomatoes and peppers were anything but widely known in the world. Europe, Asia, Africa, and what is now Australia had never seen them until the Columbian Exchange. It took a few hundred years for people who had been unfamiliar with them to get over their anxiety, but then, in what I think is a fascinating example of how fast something can impact cultures, they spread all over the world in a couple of centuries.

Brooklyn Delhi began with the work of chef and cookbook author Chitra Agrawal. Since 2009 in Brooklyn, Chitra has served, taught, and written about Indian home cooking. Born here in the U.S. to Indian immigrant parents, she returns regularly to India. As it says on Brooklyn Delhi’s website:

Chitra travels to India each year to visit family and gain inspiration for her recipes. Much of what her suitcase is filled with going back home is (you guessed it!) achaar in oh-so many varieties—green mango, gooseberry, red chili, carrot, etc. After getting her fiancé Ben Garthus hooked on the stuff (and running out of achaar before her next trip), they realized that the only achaars available for sale in the U.S. were salt-heavy, cooked with unhealthy oils & preservatives and lacked that homemade flavor.

Happily, for the rest of us, they decided to make their own. Locally-grown tomatoes, a mix of Indian spices like fenugreek, tamarind, red chile powder, unrefined cane sugar, and sesame oil. Be sure to take note of the amazing aroma when you open the jar! I tasted it first at the Good Food Mercantile show many years ago, and it caught my attention immediately. The name Brooklyn Dehli made me smile, and, more importantly, the flavor and aroma wowed me. Agrawal’s Tomato Achaar is complex, well-balanced, and has a lovely long finish.

Agrawal’s work isn’t just about cooking. As with all of us, there’s a complex personal story, a story that includes struggle, success, a lifelong effort to make peace with oneself, and to find one’s own unique way in the world. Her blog is entitled, The ABCDs of Cooking. As she explains:

The extra “D” on the end of ABC is no mistake–ABCD stands for American Born Confused Desi, a term sometimes used to describe a desi or South Asian (Indian in my case) born and brought up in the U.S. (NJ, CA and now Brooklyn, NY). Growing up, I struggled with the infamous ABCD label, but now I quite like it 🙂

All these years later, Agrawal has a television show, writes for all sorts of well-known food journals, and has recorded any number of podcasts. She has a nice cookbook out too: Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn. Traditionally, Tomato Achaar is eaten with curries, rice dishes, lentil dal, and yogurt, but you can top it on most anything. It’s great on the Sharon Hollow from the Creamery or spooned over the Creamery’s handmade Cream Cheese for an appetizer the way you’d serve cream cheese with pepper jelly. It’s super tasty on Sesame Semolina toast with goat cream cheese. Excellent with scrambled eggs or added to tuna salad. Put it on a burger, or even a hot dog! Great on grilled cheese, or use it as a pasta sauce, or as the sauce on a pizza. If you’re like me, once you try it, you’ll find yourself putting it on pretty much everything!

You can find the Tomato Achaar at the Deli, and also online at Mail Order.