Growing up, I watched my Indian grandmother eat from a large, stainless-steel plate called a thali, filled with many tiny bowls of condiments. As I got older I had questions, mainly: Are multiple dips and sauces really necessary at every meal? Eventually I realized that they are, at least in Indian food, where condiments are the ultimate customization tool: With every bite, you can invite more sweetness, more heat, or more sour to the party, making every bite of that lamb stew in front of you into a completely different experience. The three main condiment types in the Indian repertoire are chutneys, raitas, and achaar, or pickles.
Chutneys are relishes of fruits or vegetables that can be either sweet and sour, spicy and sour, or both, usually preserved with an acid (citrus juices or vinegars)—mango (above) is probably the best-known chutney.
India's most ubiquitous spicy chutney (above) is a fresh, pestolike one of cilantro (occasionally combined with mint), lime juice, and green chiles.
Tamarind (above) is the most popular sweet-and-sour chutney, often eaten with chaat, i.e., Indian snacks.
Raitas are yogurt-based dipping sauces that contain vegetables or fruits and spices. They're used to chill out blisteringly hot dishes and highlight flavors, particularly in the South Indian rice dishes pulao and biryani. Cucumber and mint with cumin is the most common raita, but onion, apple, and carrot are frequent stars.
Achaar, or pickles, are fruits or vegetables preserved by simmering them in oil, though sometimes with vinegar or citrus juice instead. Piquancy ranges from mild to hot, with the odd sweet or sour standout; turmeric, fenugreek, and asafetida are common spices. A major pickle differentiator is the oil used, which is usually a clue to the pickle’s origin: mustard oil in Northern India, sesame oil in the south. Green mango (aam ka achaar) and lime (nimbu ka achaar) are the two most common Indian pickles. My personal favorite: a sweet, spicy sun-dried mango pickle from the western state of Gujarat called chundo (above), eaten with flatbread and yogurt.
With these hot, vivid, sour, and/or cooling options in front of you, you're ready to set out on your own, highly personal food adventure. Thali optional.
Photos by Chris Rochelle