Chefs Explain The Popularity Of Aam Kasundi, A Bengali Favourite

If you’ve ever wandered the streets of Old Delhi, looking for some great chaat or perused through a Kathi roll menu anywhere in Mumbai, you can’t be unfamiliar with aam kasundi. The condiment which originated in zamindar households of undivided Bengal has travelled far and wide, so you can lay your hands on some aam kasundi paneer tikka or some mango kasundi chicken wings, no matter where you are. 

Mustard has been a staple ingredient in Indian cuisine for thousands of years, valued not only for its distinct flavour but also for its medicinal properties. The Bengali condiment was devised as a way to make the most of the local produce and spices that were abundant in the region; the combination of these two ingredients resulted in a condiment that perfectly balanced the tartness of raw mangoes with the pungency of mustard seeds, creating a unique and flavorful relish.

"Mango kasundi offers a flavour profile that is unparalleled in the culinary world,” says Executive Chef Jamal Ali Sha, of Jaisalmer Marriott Resort & Spa. The chef loves using mango kasundi in summer salads and categorises it as a near-perfect accompaniment to fish preparations. 

“This versatile condiment pairs well with rolls, cutlets, salads, and sandwiches as a base, but it also serves as an ideal accompaniment to fish dishes, enhancing the overall flavour profile. Its unique blend of spices and ingredients, such as mustard seeds, vinegar, and mango, give it a distinct taste that is both tangy and sweet,” he adds. 

Over the years, Aam Kasundi has become an integral part of Bengali cuisine, featuring prominently in traditional dishes. Not only has it been fine-tuned to be a part of everyday meals but it has also been used in contemporary recipes by chefs across the country, especially in fusion recipes. From aam kasundi scotch eggs at fine diners to Kasundi-smothered Chilean sea bass in Dubai, the aam kasundi has had quite a makeover.

The curious history of aam kasundi

A Kasundi is typically just a mustard sauce, that has a pungent taste and some heat. It is made with the freshest raw mangoes and a certain kind of mustard seeds, which are ground together with other ingredients such as green chillies, garlic, salt, and spices. The mixture is then left to ferment for several days, allowing the flavours to meld and develop.

The fermentation process is crucial to the development of Aam Kasundi's signature umami-rich profile. During fermentation, the natural sugars in the mangoes are converted into tangy acids, while the mustard seeds release their oils and develop a pungent aroma. This transformation creates a complex and nuanced condiment that is both spicy and sour, with some heat from the mustard seeds.

In her book, Stree Achaar, Renuka Devi Chaudhurani, broke down how making kasundi was anchored by a rigid, puritanical system and was only made by rich, elite households in undivided Bengal. There were staunch rules about how to separate, wash, clean and dry mustard. This mustard was ground in a powdered form and was sieved in an earthen pot with oil. 

Chaudhurani also noted a curious tradition that many elites followed about kasundi-making. If a family was struck by tragedy during the time they were making the kasundi, they would be barred from touching it; moreover, if a family failed to wash the mustard seeds, they would be barred from making kasundi for the next 12 years!

“I don’t think most people know how complex and debated the history of kasundi really is,” notes Ahmedabad-based home chef Niharika Sen. “It’s so widely available now and is available in so many variants, we see it in every other street food. But I think it’s important to learn its history and how it has evolved over the years. It says a lot about what has shifted in modern cooking.”

According to some texts, the mango kasundi has actually ben derived from something called the ‘phool kasundi,’ which was a lighter form of kasundi made with leftovers. The rich, traditional kasundi would leave behind a coarse mixture after the mustard was done being sieved. This mixture would be pasted and seasoned with chillies, turmeric, unripe mango and salt to make a sauce, which would primarily be used to cook vegetarian dishes like shukto. 

“The modern mango kasundi, or even regular kasundi that we have now, be it the bottled versions or what we are served in restaurants, is nowhere near as dense, rich or spicy as it used to be back in the nineteenth century. Its recipe has been evolved and modernised, to make it more usable and versatile in new-age kitchens,” says Sen.

Not so ‘aam’ kasundi

“Mango kasundi has a very high pungent taste and I use it frequently with cottage cheese, and to marinate fish, which gives a very interesting twist to the dish,” says Vasudha Goenka, Executive Chef, at Kolkata’s Cafe X&Y.

“I also use it as a dip with pakodas.. the sweetness of mangoes and the pungent taste of mustard makes it a very interesting taste profile.. and can be used as a marinade or dip to create exciting dishes,” she adds.

Modern chefs can’t get enough of this elegant and nuanced sauce that can balance more than one strong flavour note. Moreover, there’s a reason why mango kasundi makes for the perfect dip in crumb-fried appetisers. The acidity in the kasundi helps cut through any richness and the tanginess of raw mangoes acts as a palate-cleanser, preventing fried dishes from feeling overly heavy or greasy. This acidity also aids digestion and the crunchy mustard seeds and mango bits offer a terrific textural contrast against the softness of the fried dishes. Moreover, its potential as a salad dressing is also unmatched!

“In our kitchen, we use it for our a Kasundi & Green Onion Salad, which is one of our Indian salad specialities. We also serve a summer special salad called Kacche Aam aur Kasundhi ki salad during buffets. Mango kasundi can be used as a dipping sauce, a marinade, or a sandwich spread, and has the potential to elevate many different types of cuisine,” says Chef Sha.

"Mango kasundi works for every kind of kitchen; you can use it to eat anything. If you want to eat more leafy veg, simply use a spicier version of the kasundi and drizzle it along with some honey.  You can even garnish certain desserts with it, especially if they’re made with seasonal fruits,” shares Sen.