Thursday, Mar 30, 2023

Finger Lickin’ Good: The Story Of Indian Chutney

Don’t be in a hurry to eat that small dab of chutney at the edge of your thali. It’s supposed to be licked and relished slowly.

Finger Lickin’ Good: The Story Of Indian Chutney
Finger Lickin’ Good: The Story Of Indian Chutney

Condiment, accompaniment, relish, accessory, add-on. Call it what you want, but can you deny the irrefutable place that chutneys hold in Indian gastronomy? The doyenne of Bengali cuisine, Pragnyasundari Devi succinctly sums up its role on the Indian plate, when she says, “However grand a thali we may present to our esteemed guests, it’s for the final satisfaction of the taste buds (tripti) that the chutney was created. And if one eats with satisfaction, food is digested quickly.”

Satisfaction notwithstanding, the chutney in India’s vast culinary repertoire has an interesting back story. As observed by food historian and scholar Pushpesh Pant, it was probably the oldest assimilated dish in prehistoric India. Made fresh with ingredients like seasonal fru­i­ts, berries, greens, lentils and seeds, as opposed to matured preserves and pickles, in Bengal it ran the entire course, adding on fish and meats as well. Bengal’s legacy to Indian gastronomy is its culture of forage foods and zero-waste ethos.

Gurgaon-based food historian Pritha Sen, a Ben­­gali, says, “Given its chequered history of abundance and wealth followed by poverty, natural and man-made calamities and finally, brea­ki­­ng of its economic backbone, the chutney ste­­p­ped in as a tongue-tickling life-saver in Ben­gal. It required almost no cooking, which meant little fuel or oils, and went a long way to feed lar­ge families in times of plenty as well as scarcity.”

“Given its history of abundance followed by periods of poverty and calamities, the chutney was a tongue-tickling life-saver in Ben­gal, needing no fuel or oil.”

Taking its name from chatni meaning to lick, or perhaps from chasni meaning sugar syrup, the former name was adopted by Europeans when they arrived in Bengal, and became imm­ediately associated with a sweet relish. How­e­v­er, that is neither the real nor the only story. Talking about the origin of chutneys, Sen expl­a­ins that in India, a chutney goes by several nam­es, whether sweet or savoury, dry or wet. For instance, across south India, it is called pachdi, podi, thecha, chammanthi, thogayal, etc. In Ben­gal, savoury mixes go by the name of bata meaning ground to a paste or simply, chatni. The lat­ter is sweet and is had at the end of a meal, both as a relish and a palate cleanser.

Once the sugar bowl of the subcontinent, from where it gets its ancient name of Gauda, Bengal is blessed with an abundance of fruits and berr­ies, and quickly embraced the Europ­e­an art of preserves, turning it into a slow-coo­ked rich cha­tni made with seasonal fruits and nuts. In doing so, Bengal’s plethora of savoury chutneys or batas, freshly made on the grinding stone or mortar and pestle, and had at the begi­nning of a meal or sometimes comprising the entire meal, got lost in all the richness of its sweet sibling.

From time immemorial, chutneys or spicy pas­tes in Bengal have been made with foraged ingredients rich in nutrients that today get thrown away as waste. Talking about lost chutn­ey recipes, Sen says, “Steamed cauliflower lea­v­es, which have thrice the amount of proteins, minerals, die­tary fibre, iron, calcium and phosp­horous as cauliflower itself, would be ground to a paste with chillies, garlic, chopped onions and kalonji seeds, and mixed with a drop of mustard oil. Or the peel of the green planta­in­—a rich sou­r­ce of iron, potassium, dietary fib­re, polyunsatur­ated fats and amino aci­ds—treated sim­­ilarly. The list is endless—col­ocasia leaves and shoots, yam, poi­nted gourd and ridge gourd peel, gourd leaves and greens, moringa leaves, pumpkin, bottle gou­rd and seeds of the hyacinth bean, jackfruit or ses­ame, meats and dried fish pastes.”

Nothing that had nutrition was wasted, as is seen in the use of fish scales, fried and ground to a paste with fried garlic, onion and chillies to make a spicy chutney. The pasty texture and spi­cy flavours ensured that a little dollop could go with a plateful of rice and become a complete meal that combined proteins, min­erals and carb­ohydrates. Unfortunately, these are now fading from memory and palates.

Across Nagaland, axone or akhuni chutney, made with fermented and smoked soyabeans, is a popular condiment. An acquired but addictive taste, to make it, you need to grind 5-6 green chi­llies, a couple of tomatoes, a tab­l­espoon of soyabean paste, a piece of ginger and salt in a mortar and pestle. Made famous by the eponymous film Axone (2019), it has gained a lot of converts acr­oss India’s metropolises, along with bamboo shoot chutney, another relish popular across the Northeast.

Sneha Saikia, a Delhi based home chef, says, “Chutneys of the north east are different. They are mashed with a wooden pestle into a coarse paste.” She adds, “In Assam we have varieties of pitika (mas­h­ed chutney). We roast and mash bamboo shoots with boiled potatoes, raw onions, chillies and a dash of mustard oil to make a pitika.”

When it comes to chutneys, can one for­get the scrumptious coconut chutn­ey popular across the south? Be it idli, vadai or dosai—no “South Indian” bre­akfast is complete without the acc­omp­anying coconut chutney. There are many variations—with oni­ons, ginger or garlic. The­re is also a plain coconut chutney with just curry leaves and mustard seeds as tem­pering. The red coconut chutney is popular in Kerala, while the green one is popular in Kar­nataka. Again, there is the pottukadalai chutney, made with grated coconut and fried gram dal.

Chef Manjul Myne of AnnaMaya And­­az in Delhi, says, “Chutneys play a vital role in stimulating tastebuds and uplifting the taste of any Indian dish it accompanies. They are also the most important part of a meal across regi­o­ns and cultures, as they help in digestion and have antioxidant properties. Most importantly, chutneys are made fresh and have no preservatives, unlike sauces, preserves or achaars.”

Any kind of chutney is always a flavour bomb that elevates the dish it is served with or added to. It balances and rounds off all flavours of a particular recipe; adding spiciness, sweetness or sou­rness according to its ingredients. Chef San­j­yot Keer, founder of Your Food Lab, says, “When the spicy-sour paani of the paani puri is mixed with sweet chutney, it completes the taste of a perfect paani puri. Similarly, when the thecha is combined with sweet chutney in a vada pav, it gives a balanced, wholesome treat to the taste­buds. That’s how chutneys play an important role in the dishes they are served with. They not just add flavour or enhance taste, but in some cases, also add moisture. Think of idli—it’s dry when eaten alone. But when dunked in coconut chutney, you get moisture and enhan­ced flavour. Similarly, a samosa dipped in the sweet chutney enhances the taste while balancing its dryness.”

Most chutney recipes are family hei­r­looms. It’s only 2-3 generations since India’s urb­an population has started to become statistically significant, econo­mically comfortable enough not to have to dep­end on fora­g­ed items, and cut-off from their rural roots. With grandmas and great-­gran­dmas the last living link with the rural past, they are get­ting lost rapidly. Keer says, “One of the chutneys I lea­r­nt from my grandmom is pudina, pyaaz aur anar ki chutney (made of mint leaves, onions and pom­egran­a­te). She used to make it in a mortar and pestle—a big stone bowl with a long woo­d­­en mall­et­—grinding the ingredie­nts, giv­ing it a combination of fine and coa­rse textu­r­es. It was amazing to eat it while seeing her make it.”

Going back to childhood memories of chutney, vlogger Nikhil Chawla says, “Some dhabas in Connaught Place, Del­­hi used to make the best version of pickled onion with rustic green chutney made on the silbatta. In our childhood, we used to relish the pickled onion and the chutney while waiting for our food to be served. People still do that in North Indian restaurants.”

Every region in India has its own special chutney. Chef Tanvi Goswami of SAGA, Gurgaon, says, “I’m from Jam­mu and Kashmir, but I spent my adol­escent years in Rajasthan. The inf­l­uences of Rajasthan, its people and culture had a pivotal role in shaping my personality and skills. Ever so oft­en, Rajasthani food is accompanied by a chilli-­garlic chutney, owing to their spicy food. It acts as a cooling agent in the heat.”

Growing up in a Bengali household, the best chu­tn­ey memory for home chef Ayandrali Dutta is of chalta (elephant apple) or amra (hog plum). “In summer, when visiting gra­nd­pa­rents was a ritual, I would see my grandma use a mortar and pestle to gently crush the ing­redients so that the right amount of juices were released dur­­ing the stewing that followed. The taste was unique—a fabulous mix of sweet and spicy. It just elevated the meal a notch,” she says.

Like Bengalis, Biharis also have a tomato chu­t­ney. But unlike the Bengali one—which is swe­et and made with dates, raisins and date palm jaggery—the Bihari tomato chutney is tan­gy. Tom­atoes are grilled and mashed, then garnis­hed with chopped green chillies, onions and cor­iander leaves. It goes well with sattu parat­h­as, dal-rice or litti. Another chutney popular in Bihar is the teesi ki chutney, made with flax see­ds, red and green chillies, and lime.


Nutritionist Kavita Devgan talks of some popular and basic chutneys of India and their health benefits:

Raw Mango Chutney

Raw mango delivers multiple vitamins—C, A, E—and minerals like calcium, magnesium and niacin, that are brilliant for our heart’s health and immunity. It is really good for our digestion and helps keep constipation at bay.

Amla Chutney

Rich in vitamin C, our best bet to boost immunity and keep flu, cold and myriad other viruses at bay.

Coriander Chutney

It is loaded with micro-nutrients our body needs—vitamin A, B, C and E—along with minerals like calcium, phosphorous, iron, and magnesium, and aids in digestive juice secretion.

Onion Chutney

Gives you the advantage of allicin—a phytochemical that boosts circulation, warms the body from inside, and cleanses and nourishes the body, particularly the liver.

Garlic Chutney

Garlic chutney helps in lowering blood cholesterol and in boosting digestion. It also helps lower blood sugar, increasing energy and boosting the immune system.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Taste in a Paste")

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