Womyn Powered Food: Chitra Agrawal
Interviewed and edited by Jenn de la Vega
Chitra Agrawal keeps culinary traditions alive by trekking back to southern India every year. Exploring among the curries and fragrant rice dishes, she would haul back every kind of pickle or achaar— from gooseberry to green mango. When she sought out local varieties in the U.S., she only found preservatives, undesirable oils and way too much salt.
With that she launched Brooklyn Delhi in 2014 and her own line of achaar using local Brooklyn tomatoes. She compares her jar to the versatility of Sriracha but with more complex flavors and significantly less sugar.
As a chef and food writer, she had so much more to share in her first cookbook, Vibrant India. Her vegetarian recipe collection journeys from Bangalore to Brooklyn. Adapted for home cooks, the book introduces a new pantry stuffed with asafoetida, curry leaves, and of course, turmeric.
Chitra took a moment to chat with us before diving back into recipe development at Brooklyn Delhi, where she is hoping to unveil a new line of products in 2019.
What sorts of frustrations did you have reconciling your Indian identity with your U.S. life?
I think any kid just wants to fit in but that was difficult for me. I was the only brown kid in my town in Jersey which was predominantly Italian and Irish Catholic. Every year our family visited India where again I stuck out in the way I talked, dressed and even walked – there I was called an ABCD (American-born Confused Desi), a derogatory term used to describe Americans of South Asian descent. Back home, I rejected my Indianness to blend in at school, which made me feel like a fraud and guilty for turning my back on my heritage.
Things started to change for me in high school and college when I took refuge in the punk rock movement where acceptance and non-judgment were part of the ethos. For the first time, I felt OK that I stood apart. Later, I found a similar kinship with members of the Brooklyn DIY food community, a group of home cooks passionate about creating, collaborating and learning. That supportive environment fostered [my blog] the ABCDs of Cooking, a way for me to reclaim my heritage and explore identity through the lens of food. Through this work, I wanted to reframe the definition of an ABCD and celebrate the perspective.
Do you have a favorite moment while you were researching your cookbook Vibrant India?
I had the notion that everyone in my family was making staple dishes using particular recipes passed down from generations past. I could not have been more wrong. My mother has two sisters who all are passionate about the South Indian cooking they grew up eating but I found they were all making these dishes differently in their own homes. For me that was a revelation because here I was chasing after that definitive recipe and getting somewhat frustrated when I would get conflicting preparations. In the end, I realized that if recipes varied within a family, my version of that recipe was just as justified as anyone else’s. The notion of ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’ went out the window. It changed the direction of my whole book and made me more confident in sharing my riffs on those recipes without feeling the guilt that I was spreading misinformation or worrying that someone was going to call me out because I was making it the wrong way.
Growing up, what were your favorite sounds and smells? What really brings you back?
The popping of black mustard seeds and the crackle of curry leaves fried in hot oil definitely brings me back. The chugging of my mother’s pressure cooker and the whirr of a coffee grinder grinding freshly roasted spices for one of her masalas. My father frying onions in ghee, the thought of that smell…
Has becoming a mother changed the way you think about cooking?
Most definitely. I am addicted to heat so I have had to tone down my ways a bit for the little one. That’s not to say I don’t put achaar on everything like I always did. I am having fun introducing the foods I grew up eating to Alok. My parents were committed to making home cooked food for my brother and I growing up no matter how busy they were at work and that is something that I strive to do for Alok as well.
What are some of the most creative applications of achaar you've seen from Brooklyn Delhi customers?
A lot of our customers eat our tomato achaar and garlic achaar with eggs, which I never did growing up but now I love it, too! I see a lot of our customers use our achaar with Middle Eastern foods like falafel and mixed into hummus. One of our first food service customers 61 Local puts our roasted garlic achaar into deviled eggs on their menu, which I thought was brilliant. Emily and Emmy Squared use the achaars on pizza and they also put our Curry Mustard on a pizza with Havarti and dollops of sauce (that is an ode to a famous mustard pie from New Jersey). We’re also working with Blue Apron and their chefs are blowing my mind with creative bowls using our tomato achaar that looks mouthwatering.
You’ve just introduced two new nationally-distributed products at Brooklyn Delhi, curry ketchup and mustard. What has been the difference in educating people nationally, versus regionally with achaar?
Our focus from the beginning has always been about educating consumers about Indian flavors. We found that with the achaar when people tried it they loved it but if they just saw it on the shelf, they were confused or perplexed by it. We infused some of those same flavors into our ketchup and mustard to overcome that issue. Our hope is that when people get introduced to the flavors in our ketchup and mustard, they will be curious to learn more about what Indian cuisine has to offer.
What is your pantry like? What about your fridge?
When I look at my pantry, I see the people in my life. I still have garam masala made by my grandmother who has since passed away years ago that I am slowly rationing because I can’t bring myself to finish it. Alongside that is coriander seed powder that my dad insists on grinding for me even though I tell them I grind my own coriander seeds. My mom’s chutney pudi (condiment of roasted spices, chili peppers, coconut and tamarind) is something I always have on hand. I have ingredients that friends have brought me back from their travels and condiments made by friends that also have food companies like Mike’s Hot Honey, Mama O’s Kimchi, Anarchy in a Jar and of course Sana’s turmeric. I have an abundance of achaars and masala powders that I have brought back from India, some from my favorite vendors and others from family members. My husband is from Wisconsin so we always have some type of very sharp cheddar – his mom ships us packages of cheese in Winter.
I have solid blocks of jaggery, my favorite sweetener. One of my prized possessions is pure asafetida from SSP Hing in Bangalore that I grind from a solid block of resin into powder. I have lots and lots of varieties of nuts, beans, lentils and grains and fresh produce stocked in the fridge bought from the Greenmarket near our house. Good bread either from the Russian bakery or Bread Alone. I also have tons of yogurt in my fridge because I use it pretty much at every meal in a savory way – I buy an 80 oz container every week of Indian-style yogurt. In the freezer, I always have frozen fresh coconut which I use in a lot of South Indian recipes and I also have emergency curry leaves for when I don’t have fresh on hand.
What role did turmeric play in your life growing up? How about now?
Turmeric is an ever-present ingredient when you grow up in a Hindu Indian household. Just a touch is used in every single dish, but it also has religious significance and is part of many ceremonial rituals. I continue to use turmeric like my parents, adding a little to my cooked lentils, into my vegetables and to my rice to make it festive and also in my achaars for its antibacterial qualities.
Jenn de la Vega is editor-at-large of Put A Egg On It, a resident at TASTE and author of Showdown: Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ. She resides in Brooklyn where she runs a small catering company called Randwiches.
Photography by Sana Javeri Kadri.