Spicy, Tangy, Sweet. Food in India is incomplete without these. Chutneys don’t just accompany the meals, sometimes these are a part of a ritual and often a comfort food. And sometimes, as pioneered by Aamir Khan in his film 3 Idiots, is used to bring out one’s true character.
Mention the word ‘chutney’, and vivid imagery of my grandma sitting in the verandah with her mortar and pestle conjures up in front of my eyes. Yes, the tad soiled cotton saree, perhaps it has seen better days, amma was sitting with an array of utensils spread around all over. A little hibiscus shyly plays hide and seek and jumps within her silver strands of hair. Mangoes are in season, a big paraat is kept on her one side with numerous rotund and oblong mangoes. The green coloured fruits sit comfortably on the paraat, the fragrance emanating is serene and a little raw, yes, mangoes are here. She is at work, shouting slyly on kids playing to keep away from her as she works her way to come up with delectable and spicy mango chutney.
Chutneys of our country are as varied as their uses and tastes. Every region has a different culture, hence different tastes mean different chutneys. Let’s begin this spicy journey of the tangy, sweet, sometimes sticky, fluid dip-like Indian speciality named CHUTNEY! A chutney can be culled out of a mango, pineapple or even garlic and onion. It can just be the raw paste of any vegetable or slightly cooked in a pan. As an Indian who grew up in the Punjabi heartland – Delhi – I can tell you how this very small, almost inconspicuous part of your meal helps you understand the colourful culture of our country.
Let’s begin with Bengal. Ruled by the British for years, the Calcutta cuisine or West Bengal cuisine changed from the traditional Bengali cuisine which, perhaps, East Bengal and parts of the Northeast still retains. This denotes, the closer you come to Kolkata, the erstwhile British capital, the sweeter your chutneys turn up. The English liked bland food with just a little dash of spice, hence the sweet raisin and mango and tomato chutneys of Bengal are prominent in Bengal. Initially, these chutneys were used by the British to carry backhome a taste of India. It would primarily be the mangoes from Bengal with sugar that prevented the mango from getting spoilt while the sepoys travelled the seas to their homeland. This, however, was not be the entire spectrum of chutneys. The glorious food called chutney is Chaatni to most Bengalis. You can have mango chutney, guava chutney, pineapple chutney, papaya chutney and even fish chutney or a prawn chutney. But more often than not, I realised, these chutneys would be sweet. A little tangy, a little spicy but invariably – SWEET!
North Indian delights
Growing up in Delhi, I am well acquainted to the taste of the chutneys of northern part of the country. Unlike the Bengali chutneys, here it was not a part of your entire meal, but as an accompaniment for snacks. In Bengal, it’s almost disgraceful if there is not tomato chutney or a date chutney at a wedding reception. In Delhi, it is not so. While Bengalis would cook chutney as a part of a meal to be had after one finishes the main course, just to sweeten the palate a bit before chomping it with sweets like mishti doi or rasgulla; Delhiites would just keep a ‘hari’ (green) chutney or a Saunth chutney ready to be served with the pakodas at a function. The green chutney would normally be spicy while saunth made of dates would be sweet. You can find another variety of imli or tamarind chutney which is tangy to be served with the many chaats and pakodas. Chutneys here are simplistic and not a very big part of your meal.
Rustic flavours of the West and the south
We come west to the financial capital of Mumbai. Here I fell into a cauldron of chutneys this busy city offers. There are dry chutneys, liquid chutneys and also some in its semi solid avatar. You can have a vada pav (the Indian burger) with dry or wet chutney. Go to any household, they will have the extremely spicy dry chilli powdered chutney or at the least a version of the South Indian coconut chutney ready for every meal.
The Konkanis, people from the Konkan (western coastal) belt may also offer you the egg plant chutney. Something, that I fell in love with when I came here. And South India too has a huge influence on this city. Every place has at least two South Indian joints. Dosa, Idli and Uthappam are as popular or perhaps more popular than the traditional Marathi fare. Thus there is an invasion of coconut based chutneys here. There can be the plain coconut and urad dal chutney, the tomato and coconut chutney, the onion and coconut chutney, the beet root and coconut chutney. PHEW! It’s simple. Just make a paste of coconut with anything else from your refrigerator and yum yum, it is ready! So, whichever part of India you might travel to, chutneys will surely add that extra flavour to your meal.
Do try some of my favourites :
Tangy Amla Chutney: You will need 8-10 amlas, pitted and cut, 6-7 garlic cloves, 4-5 green chillies, Coriander – 25 gm, Salt, Jeera powder, Red chilli powder (to taste).
Directions: In a blender, put chopped amlas, garlic, chillies, coriander with a little water and blend. Add Salt, red chilly powder along with the jeera powder, top it up a little mint juice.
Beetroot Chutney: Beetroot is immensely good source of iron and a wonder veggie for women. For this chutney, you will need 2 peeled beetroots cut in to pieces, a handful of curry leaves, 4-5 garlic cloves, 4-5 green chillies, mustard seeds a spoonful, dry red chillies – 2-3, lemon juice or tamarind pulp as per your palate, a pinch of hing, salt and jeera powder.
Directions: Heat a spoonful of oil in a pan, add hing, mustard seeds, dry chillies, garlic, green chillies, and curry leaves. Saute for 3 minutes and then add the beetroots pieces. Cook for good 7-8 minutes and add salt to it. Let the mixture cool, then grind to a fine paste. Now add lime juice or tamarind pulp to it, give a nice mix and top it up with jeera powder.