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(photo credit: Bloomberg News)
Recently we lunched on grilled Indian marinated chicken breast and found that our entree benefited greatly from the sweet and sour tamarind chutney from the restaurant's condiment bar. A few days later we dined at a Middle Eastern eatery and the house hot sauce, which tasted like tangy s'hug (hot pepper garlic paste) made the lamb in our laffa sandwich sing.
Chutney and s'hug are examples of relishes, or condiments eaten with other foods to add flavor. Wherever you go, a relish is on the table - olives and purple pickled turnips at Sephardi restaurants, dill pickles at Ashkenazi ones and a mixture of chopped chilies, tomatoes and onions at Mexican ones. Every style of cuisine has its favorites.
In the summertime, which for many Americans is the grilled hot dog and hamburger season, relishes figure prominently at cookouts. These meats call for sharp accompaniments, which make eating them more interesting.
Because relishes are designed to contribute to the taste of other foods, they have assertive flavors ranging from spicy to tangy to salty to sweet to fiery, and some take getting used to. I couldn't eat Iraqi amba (spicy mango relish) or my mother-in-law's Yemenite s'hug when I first tasted them. My husband felt the same about my mother's Ashkenazi horseradish.
Some people use the term relish to mean pickled chopped vegetables or fruits, such as the popular American sweet pickle relish. When I first tasted the neon-green mixture, in Chicago, where I was informed that it was a necessary element of an authentic Chicago-style hot dog in a bun, I thought, "I guess you had to grow up with it." I gained a new appreciation of relishes as I became familiar with the Indian style of eating. Their numerous chutneys and pickles are viewed as essential components of meals, and not just to accompany meat; they're also loved with rice, breads and vegetable dishes.
In Chilis to Chutneys my friend Neelam Batra calls chutneys "lively perker-uppers... packed with a spice rack full of tantalizing flavors that radically affect the taste of our foods. Made with vegetables, fruits, fresh herbs and fragrant spices... freshly blended... or cooked and preserved, they are all part of the savory lip-smacking family of palate pleasers." Batra describes relishes as "those sprightly guests who live in our pantry and refrigerator and visit us only when we are in the mood for explosive fun and bursts of concentrated flavor."
Since relishes keep well, many of us find ourselves with a collection of jars in the refrigerator. It's good to keep them in mind as seasonings to use in cooking. Batra recommends green cilantro chutney, which resembles s'hug with green onions, mint, lime juice and a pinch of sugar, as a glaze for grilled chicken, a sandwich spread and a pizza sauce.
I find that s'hug-enlivened vinaigrette dressing is good on cooked vegetables like asparagus, cauliflower or broccoli. A spoonful of s'hug also enhances stuffings for vegetables. To tone down the heat of s'hug, you can sautÃ© it briefly in olive oil, and toss it with cooked vegetables, rice or pasta.
To make a quick salad from grilled eggplant when I don't have time to chop garlic, I stir in tehina, lemon juice and a dab of s'hug. This spicy shortcut for salat hatzilim turns out delicious.
No matter what condiment you are using in sauces or other preparations, add it gradually and keep tasting - many are quite potent. Yemenites routinely stir s'hug into their meat soup, but the first time I stirred a big spoonful into a pot of vegetable soup, I got quite a jolt!
SRI LANKAN EGGPLANT RELISH
Hot, spicy, sour and slightly sweet, this dish flavored with mustard, curry powder, cayenne pepper and vinegar will surely wake up your taste buds. Kusuma Cooray, a Sri Lanka-born chef who studied French cooking with me in Paris, taught me how to prepare it. It's good with hamburgers or other grilled meats, or with rice, cooked vegetables and yogurt. You can keep this relish for three days in a covered dish in the refrigerator.
1 medium to large eggplant (450 gr. to 500 gr.)
31â„2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
salt to taste
1 medium onion, halved, sliced
1â„3 cup distilled white vinegar
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. curry powder, preferably imported
1â„4 tsp. pure chili powder or cayenne pepper, or more
1 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. water
Preheat oven to 230Âº. Leave eggplant unpeeled; cut in crosswise slices 1 cm. thick. Put slices on a large lightly oiled baking sheet in one layer. Sprinkle with 11â„2 tablespoons oil, then sprinkle lightly with salt. Bake 10 minutes; turn slices over, sprinkle with salt and bake about 10 more minutes or until tender. Transfer to a plate.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy large skillet. Add sliced onion and sautÃ© over medium heat, stirring often, about 12 minutes or until brown. Remove onions to plate.
Add vinegar, mustard, curry powder, chili powder, sugar, water and pinch of salt to skillet. Stir over low heat until smooth.
Return eggplant slices to pan and toss quickly but gently over low heat to coat each slice with the seasonings. Taste; sprinkle with salt and more chili powder if desired. Put eggplant slices on a serving plate, overlapping. Top with sautÃ©ed onion slices. Serve at room temperature.
Makes 3 or 4 servings.
S'HUG - YEMENITE HOT PEPPER GARLIC RELISH
S'hug is a fiery Yemenite relish made of fresh hot peppers and garlic and sometimes additional spices. It's made in two basic versions: red s'hug made from hot red chilies and green s'hug from green ones. Green s'hug often has fresh coriander, which helps to balance the heat somewhat. S'hug is easy to find at the store but tastes fresher if you make your own.
Traditionally Yemenites spread s'hug on bread and eat the bread with a main-course meat soup. I use relatively mild hot peppers; use any kind you like. I often remove the seeds and ribs so it will be less hot, but Yemen-born cooks leave them in.
1 cup garlic cloves, peeled (about 110 gr.)
110 gr. hot green peppers
1 cup fresh coriander, cut in a few pieces
4 to 5 Tbsp. water, if needed
1 tsp. salt
1â„4 tsp. ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. ground cumin (optional)
Wear gloves when handling hot peppers. Remove stems from peppers. Put garlic and peppers in food processor and puree until finely chopped and well blended. If necessary, add a few tablespoons water, just enough to enable food processor to chop mixture. Add coriander and process until blended. Add salt, pepper and cumin.
Keep s'hug in a jar in refrigerator. It keeps about 1 week. Take only a small amount from the jar for serving, reserving the rest in the refrigerator. You can also freeze it.
Makes about 1 cup, about 8 to 12 servings.
Note: To make a small quantity, chop 3 or 4 garlic cloves and an approximately equal amount of hot peppers in a mini food processor with 1 or 2 teaspoons water. Add 1â„2 cup coarsely chopped coriander sprigs and process until they are finely chopped.n
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast and Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.