When bartenders want to make a drink sour, many of them turn to citric acid. The compound allows for the bite of citrus without the volume, or the risk that the juice will start to turn sitting for hours in a pre-made batch. But citric acid is a little one-note—all tang and no residual flavors. Yes, it goes with anything, but isn’t that the same as saying it goes with nothing? At Pijja Palace in Los Angeles, the bartenders wanted the cocktail list to reflect the Indian flavors infusing the menu of breezy bar food classics, including saag paneer pizza and dosa batter onion rings. So they turned to a beloved Indian spice—no, not turmeric: amchur.
Amchur, a powder made from unripe green mangoes, is a common ingredient across Indian cuisines. You’ll find it in chutneys and achaars, simmered in chana dal and as the main component in chaat masala, a spice mixture sprinkled over street foods across the country. It’s sour and zesty with a lingering hint of sweetness. It brightens up fried food and adds tang to rich sauces, but with slightly more warmth than a squirt of lime.
Pijja Palace owner Avish Naran says its ubiquity in Indian cuisines is the reason the restaurant’s bar program looked to it for cocktails. “We don’t have a very established drinking culture in India, especially from where I’m from in Gujarat,” he says. And while Indian spirits and cocktail bars may be coming of age in some cities, many cocktails were not originally built to pair with Indian flavors. Most of Pijja Palace’s drinks are riffs on classic cocktails like the Martini or the flip, so adding amchur and other spices is “a good way to translate Indian flavors” into a section of the restaurant experience where they’ve typically not been found, while retaining the familiarity of the classic cocktail builds.
One example the Pijja Palace team has come up with is the Pata-quiri, a take on the Daiquiri that uses amchur and other South Asian ingredients like tamarind and Rooh Afza, an Indian juice concentrate. There’s also the Royal Treatment, a mango lassi spiked with mezcal that uses amchur in both the drink itself and as part of the powdered rim garnish. In the nonalcoholic Desi Crush, meanwhile, orange soda is dressed up with amchur, tamarind and lemon. Naran says bar staff have used chaat masala—which usually contains amchur, salt and a range of other spices like mint, cumin and ginger—to rim drinks, and are constantly experimenting with using it to replace, or bolster, any citrus or sour notes in well-known classics.
Naran also notes that amchur offers an easy way to infuse spirits—just leave a spoonful in a bottle of vodka for a couple of days before straining it out to add a zesty layer to your next round of vodka Martinis. Pijja Palace infuses amchur into syrups and bitters, too, for use in cocktails or just to mix in with soda. “One of our favorite things is just to punch up Angostura,” says Naran; they’ve used the bitters in cocktails and nonalcoholic sodas alike, whether by the dash or in a much longer pour. Without an established tradition of Indian cocktails making the rules, there’s no one to say how you can or should incorporate it. That’s the joy.