The magnificent saga of mustard sauce

A peek into the glorious, golden goodness that helped the mustard-based yellow table sauce and its ilk to become enduring global sensations. 
Mustard sauce is one of the world's most popular condiments and dates from roman times. Image: shutterstock
Mustard sauce is one of the world’s most popular condiments and dates from Roman times. Image: Shutterstock

Fact: China, Egypt, and the Indus Valley Civilisation were the first growers of mustard.

Also, a fact: Much like in Rome, in India, mustard’s first use was as an antidote/antiseptic, especially effective in treating wounds, cough, rheumatoid arthritis and more. 

Another fact: Both Rome and Egypt used mustard in their cooking. However, Rome became the first to turn it into a condiment — the original mustard sauce and paste. 

Yet another fact: Mustard and ketchup (initially a fish sauce) began their culinary journeys together. 

Yet, when it comes to mustard — in its most popular form, at least — it’s French that the world associates it with. And in India, it is ‘English’ thanks to one of the super brands of sauces, Colman’s. The reason for this, says culinary researcher Chef Nimish Bhatia, Owner, Nimisserie Bespoke, “is that it was in France that the first refined mustard sauce took shape — from the crude, cooked Roman version made with white or yellow mustard seeds that were soaked and then ground into a paste along with pine nuts, almonds (if you were part of the legendary gourmand Apicius’ banquet), flour, and verjus (fermented green unripe grapes that gave the sauce its tartness) to a emulsified bright yellow-hued spread that was a combination of sweet, sour, tart and pungent in equal delicious parts.”

The mustard story 

In fact, adds Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Zest, “once the Roman nobility introduced mustard seeds in France, much of the credit for innovation goes to the monasteries. Much like the Chinese monks who created the refined version of the Soy, the French Mustard, especially the Dijon, was made from recipes that were refined and standardised by the monks, who found the rustic Roman version an excellent addition to perk up their food, especially meat, while also helping in digestion during feasts.”

Incidentally, it was another trait of mustard that other European countries and Germany eventually adopted to help digest the large amount of meat, lard and potatoes that were a part of their diet. In fact, by the time mustard reached Germany, it was a refined version that could be instantly used to perk up food. But unlike Romans and Egyptians who used mustard paste to add flavour to their wine and create dishes like Columella Beans in Mustard Sauce and Beets in Mustard, the Germans used it more as a dip, albeit with changes. Unlike the tart smoothness of the French, the German version worked on mustard’s spiciness, utilising the isothiocyanates compounds that gives the seeds their nose-burning pungency. The Germans learnt the technique from the French Grand Moustardier du Pape or the Grand Mustard-Maker to the Pope — a title established by the yellow sauce-loving Pope John XXll of Avignon around the 13th century — and created not one but four versions, each known for its spicy level. In fact, adds Chef Bhatia, “the amount of that pungent sauce that a German devours in a day is curiously more than what America — a mustard-ketchup nation — has in its hamburgers and hot dogs. The sheer quantity can only be explained by mustard’s ability to aid in digestion with its heat and the release of two components — an acid-sensitive enzyme called myrosinase and a class of bitter agents known as glucosinolates.”

Mustard goes beautifully with salmon. Image: shutterstock
Mustard goes beautifully with salmon. Image: Shutterstock

This, says culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, Culinary Director, Going Bad, “also explains why mustard was such a valued presence in the banquets of not only the Romans, but also the Chinese, where the use of mustard is said to be the oldest. Story has it that one way Rome would know it was Apicius’ next banquet was by the sheer amount of mustard seeds that would be washed, soaked, stone ground into a paste and then cooked before being prepared (read: seasoned) for the gallons of wine or as the quintessential accompaniment to the charcuterie board filled with cheese, vegetables, roots, herbs and meats. The ability of mustard to add that flavour contrast, in fact, made it a must-have in most affluent households, Roman or Chinese.”

Interestingly, continues Chef Gorai, “during the Han dynasty, mustard that in the century before was part of the medical arsenal finally reached the kitchens where it became a tastemaker for the all-beloved Geng (soup enriched with meat, vegetables, or both) and a popular basting for meats, especially pork and fowls around the second century BC. History recalls Xin Zhui, the Lady Dai, wife of the Marquis Li Cang who was so fond of the prepared mustard paste that her tomb had some of her favourite vegetable and meat dishes made with mustard buried with her. Along with that was a pot of dark golden paste as well to have her other favourites including 27 versions of the Geng.”

Incidentally, Lady Dai’s last meal too had a generous offering of food and drinks made or peppered with mustard paste, which, continues Chef Gorai, “was extensively used in pickling.”

Rise to fame

Thanks to the Silk Route which remained under the Han Dynasty, Chinese-style mustard paste did reach India along with the later Greeks who found the pungency rather appealing for the Indian heat — a reason, says Chef Seth, “that would prompt even the British to get their favourite tastemaker mustard to India along with ale.”

But for India, a country rich with spices and a rather progressive pattern of cooking, mustard which arrived pre-3000 BCE was used for both medicinal as well as culinary purposes, especially in pickling as it enabled us to store food. Medical texts like Bhela Saṃhitā and Kāśyapa Saṃhitā advocated the brilliance of rājikā/ āsurī (as black mustard was known then) as a antidote against pain. Susruta Samhita even suggests wrapping a bandage smeared with freshly ground mustard paste around the bones for pain relief. Kāśyapa Samhita also preaches the offering of the seeds for good health. In fact, according to Dr K.T. Achaya’s Indian food: A Historical Companion, the Rig Veda mentions mustard as one of the key ingredients back in the day.

A natural odour mask, courtesy its sharp aromas and taste, mustard for long was considered the best method to hide the gamey-ness of a meat, which was the staple diet for kings and nomads. This is further corroborated by the writings of Chinese monks Xuanzang’s and Yijing during the 7th century. They noted that Indians preferred mustard and ginger over onions, which they felt caused pain, weakened the body and the eyesight.

While in India the obsession with mustard was a shadow of that in Europe, says Chef Sharad Dewan, Founder-Director, Gourmet Design, “mustard sauce’s rise to fame came because of three interesting events: first, the patronage of royalty at different era of its existence. Mustard was a favourite of King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. While the king loved travelling with a pot of mustard when out of court, it was to Lady Pompadour that mustard reached its gourmet zenith with Maille Chablis. Known to be a royal exclusive, Maille white wine and black truffles mustard is said to be the most expensive mustard originating from France, and till date uses the mustard seeds grown by the monks of Charlemagne. The other two, of course, were courtesy Jeremiah Colman, whose innovation on mustard and the invention of the mustard-making machine not only got the English their very own mustard sauce but also The Crown’s approval who declared it, “crown jewel of mustards” and gave it a royal warrant in 1866.”

Heading to India 

Colman's cemented the popularity of mustard sauce in india. Image: shutterstock
Colman’s cemented the popularity of mustard sauce in India. Image: Shutterstock

Colman’s Mustard was introduced in India through British clubs, gymkhanas and the regimental mess. It also became the first introduction to mustard paste for a generation or two of chefs in India. Recalls Chef Bhatia, “even before the paste version landed on our shores, we had the powdered one made with yellow and white mustard and turmeric which had to be mixed with sour curd or mayo to get a sauce version, while oil or butter were used if it was for basting or marinating meat.”

Incidentally, the paste version, recalls Chef Gorai, “wasn’t much of a saviour and needed tweaking to suit the Indian palate that was more accustomed to the spiciness than the tart pungency. Even our pickles faired better than the tube version.”

Of course, with time Colman’s Mustard progressed and could create this interesting blend of flavours that went well with our palate. Fascinatingly, it was around the same time that ketchup made its presence felt in eateries. For most regions of India, says Anglo-Indian food specialist Bridget Kumar White, “in spite of our wide use of mustard greens and seeds as a spice, the association with prepared sauce was always Colman’s Mustard and later Dijon, and is used to give that sweet tartness to a dish.” 

White, who uses Colman’s Mustard to prepare the traditional Anglo-Indian Vindhaloo, refers to the mustard sauce as a “taste livewire. While it is a great tastemaker, it needs to be used in restraint much like salt.”

The nuances

Chef Abhishek Gupta, Executive Sous Chef, The Leela Ambience Gurugram, agrees. While mustard’s most defining character may be its pungency, says Chef Gupta, “it has this different layer of flavours that good technique can bring forth creating a banquet of senses that can crank up any dish’s taste profile. And over the years, that clever extraction while preparing sauces including our very own Bengali Kasundi is what has given the yellow sauce a global appeal.”

Ilish paturi uses mustard to great advantage
Ilish paturi uses mustard to great advantage

Curiously, he continues, “even as a condiment, the golden sauce continues to work on the same principle. One needs to understand not just the product but also the tonality to be able to get the best result, especially during cooking with the sauce.” Unlike its brethren ketchup, mustard sauce is extremely fragile when exposed to heat and can easily burn down, hence it needs the extra support of fat when used for marination, or, as Chef Bhatia puts it, “a second layer that can take the brunt while the prepared sauce continues to add flavours to the dish.” 

The sauce selection, continues Chef Gupta, “also plays a key role in elevating a dish’s personality. Take, for instance, the French classic mustard or the ‘Moutarde Douce’ which is the hero of any European chicken preparation. On the other hand, Dijon, a more complex, sharp-flavoured version, is best for anything that doesn’t involve prolonged cooking like glazing roasted vegetables, as a salad dressing, or a sauce for salmon. Likewise, is the case with Kasundi. Though more pronounced with its flavours, it works best as a first marination in Ilish Bhapa and would need a second marination.” 

Kasundi is a traditional indian mustard sauce from bengal that has gained wider popularity in the last few years. Image: shutterstock
Kasundi is a traditional Indian mustard sauce from Bengal that has gained wider popularity in the last few years. Image: Shutterstock

Fascinatingly, the creation of Kasundi — which is Indian Dijon and quite popular these days — followed the same Roman philosophy of fermenting the ground paste that was seasoned as it aged. In fact, it is this ancient aging process that gives Kasundi its refined character as compared to the Sorse Bata — rustic mustard paste preserved in mustard oil — or the Odia Besara, which works on the different flavour profiles of the black mustard with the addition of cumin and chillies (and sometimes poppy seeds). 

Interestingly, says Chef Dhruv Oberoi of Olive Delhi, “it is mustard’s ability to get manipulated both as a paste as well as a prepared sauce which has given the golden condiment its moment in the culinary sun these days as chefs move towards an era of intuitive cooking. The fact that only a little can go a long way in transforming a dish is one of the reasons that even we at Olive make our own mustard sauce.”

Unlike the single-tone Dijon, Chef Oberoi’s version — much like Chef Seth’s — uses a blend of locally grown yellow and brown mustard that is soaked for a few hours and then ground and seasoned to balance the heat and acidity. Though slightly more pungent, says the Olive Head Chef, “our in-house mustard is milder than a traditional Kasundi but with more character than the French, and works beautifully both as a dip as well as for marination especially for our bangers and Crab Thermidor.”

They make their own mustard at olive delhi
They make their own mustard at Olive Delhi, both for marination and to serve as an accompaniment to their dishes

Concurs Chef Seth, whose version gets its pungency from the wine and vinegar used — much like the late Romans — but works like a “livewire” when it comes to dishes like roast, poached and grill, where “restraint and clever addition is the key.” 

Kasundi became a popular dip four years ago when Chef Gorai introduced it as part of his Lavaash menu as a quintessential tastemaker — “both on the table, and beyond the burner.”

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

Read more.

India@75: Gajar ka halwa

Indian classic: Daulat Ki Chaat