Brooklyn Delhi’s Chitra Agrawal grew up eating tons of achaar — intensely flavored Indian pickles. Years later, as an adult, Agrawal brought jars of homemade achaar made by her aunts and grandmothers from India to New York. She and then-boyfriend Ben Garthus would devour the jars, and when they ran out, the couple realized that the achaar in Brooklyn was subpar. New York’s achaar contained excessive amounts of salt, preservatives, and “really bad oils.” So Agrawal started making her own.
Agrawal used produce from her weekly CSA share in her family’s recipes, which cover a breadth of Indian cuisine. Her mother is from Bangalore, in the south; her father from Delhi, in the north. “Achaar is made all over India, but the types of fruits, vegetables, and oils they use vary by location,” she explains. “In the south, they often use sesame oil and spices like fenugreek. In the north, they might make it from carrot or cauliflower, in a base of mustard oil with nigella seeds.”
When making her own achaar, Agrawal only used a little salt and oil to let the freshness of her local ingredients shine. She served her first few batches — made with nontraditional ingredients like gooseberries and heirloom tomatoes — at pop-up dinners and cooking classes she was already running.
“People responded because they’re really different in flavor and more intense than something like a chutney, which you make and eat when it’s fresh,” she says. “With achaar, the flavor gets better over time.”
With the positive reinforcement behind her, Brooklyn Delhi was formed.
At St. John’s Bread and Life soup kitchen, where Brooklyn Dehli is based, Agrawal produces four kinds of achaar: nontraditional gooseberry and rhubarb-ginger as well as the more conventional roasted garlic and tomato.
In Brooklyn Delhi’s early days, the foodie community helped Agrawal surmount unexpected hurdles. Other artisan food producers like Kareem O from Mama O’s Kimchi, Alex Boyd from Cocktail Crate, and Anita Shepherd from Anita’s Coconut Yogurt gave Agrawal a hand when she was getting started. Friendships forged at markets led to help with everything from simple stuff like finding bottles and lids to navigating New York City’s complicated mess of regulations and permits. “We went to market within months, which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” she says.
“We teach each other,” Agrawal says of her employees at St. John’s. “They’ve learned how to make these Indian pickle recipes, and they’ve taught me how to work efficiently in a commercial kitchen, which is great.” She has also used some of St. John’s suppliers — like the local upstate farms that provide her with thousands of tomatoes. All those tomatoes go into her tomato achaar — 300 pounds of them at a time.
Making huge batches of achaar in an industrial kitchen wasn’t without its challenges. “The first time we did it, I was like, ‘Oh my god! It’s a vat of hot lava! It spits fire!’ ” she exclaims. “Just working with the sheer volume versus the smaller amount I’d done before was a challenge. But over time, you understand different ways of protecting yourself from the lava.”
To make the tomato achaar, she infuses black mustard seeds and asafetida in oil then adds turmeric and garlic over heat. Tomatoes, salt, ground chili, and tamarind (which elevates the tanginess) go in next, and the lot is brought up to about 190 degrees and left to reduce for five hours. The team of three — Agrawal with her crew of Kathy and Mable — starts making batches around 2 p.m., yielding 300 jars of achaar by that evening. Each jar contains about a pound of reduced tomatoes.
Brooklyn Delhi’s production varies — but in a busy summer month, they’ll spend three or four intense sessions making a total of 12,000 jars (with gooseberry as the most limited of the flavors).
“The sheer volume of filling and capping is the most challenging part of production,” Agrawal says. “But it’s almost meditative, too. The time goes by because it’s so repetitive. It’s just one piece of the pie, but it takes a couple of hours to do.”
Countless jars after the couple’s first foray into achaar, Garthus, now Agrawal’s husband, took care of Brooklyn Dehli’s design elements. Garthus has been designing food packaging for over fifteen years and used his expertise to customize the company’s font and design after studying colorful Indian truck art, street art, and local Brooklyn deli awnings.
Agrawal’s father also translated the flavor names into Hindi, which is emblazoned on the label as well. “It was really fun working together on this with my dad, and Ben is such a whiz at all of this; I really lucked out,” says Agrawal.
Transforming personal relationships into professional ones has served Agrawal well. Brooklyn Delhi’s first retail outlet was Greene Grape Provisions in Fort Greene, where Agrawal used to live. Greene Grape started putting her achaars onto their sandwiches, “which helped people create a connection as to how you can use the products,” she says. The Brooklyn Kitchen was another major supporter in Brooklyn Delhi’s first days.
“The more people taste it, the better it’s been for us,” says Agrawal. “That’s been a huge help.”
This year, Brooklyn Delhi won a 2016 Good Food Award, which has helped her get the attention of new buyers. The win also helped with one of the company’s biggest challenges: distribution.
“Right now we’re self-distributing,” she explains. “But our roster is growing, so soon we’re going to be working with distributors — we just signed with one in the Northwest. Since deliveries take the longest time, that will help our workload.”
While all that develops, Agrawal still teaches classes about vegetarian home cooking from India. Soon, her expertise will open to an even bigger market when Ten Speed Press publishes her first cookbook in March of 2017.
“It’s based on the South Indian cooking from Bangalore,” Agrawal says of her cookbook. “There’s a lot of neat things in there, all vegetarian. And, of course, my grandma’s lemon pickle!”