From fiery hot to deliciously sweet and sour to somewhere in between, chutneys are indispensable condiments in the food from any part of India. They add an amazing diversity of flavors, texture and contrast to foods they complement. They are prepared with countless variety of ingredients — coconuts, mangoes, tamarind, lemon, tomato, ginger, hot red and green chilies, vegetables and citrus fruits and peels, garlic, mint, cilantro — the list goes on. Chutneys may be thick or thin, chunky or smooth, or robustly or delicately seasoned.
In India, chutney ingredients vary according to regions and tastes. Coconut chutney is the popular relish in South India, while herb with coconut is typical of West India. Purely herb chutneys are favored in North India and chutneys prepared with fresh or dried fruits and tart ingredients are popular in East India. Tomato and mango chutneys are dishes that know no boundaries in India; various versions of it are enjoyed all over country.
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Chutneys may be fresh, cooked or dry. The first two versions are popular outside India. Fresh chutneys are smooth, uncooked purées, often seasoned with fried mustard seeds and curry leaves in South India. They are best when freshly made, but they will stay good for a couple of days if refrigerated. A few readily available, fresh ingredients and a solid blender are all you need to prepare fresh chutneys. Coconut, mint and cilantro chutneys belong to this group. In times past in South India chutneys were ground on an ammi, a large, rectangular, rough granite stone with a cylindrical stone piece on top. These look and work exactly like the Mexican metate (mortar).
Cooked chutneys are made by cooking spices, vegetables, fruits or their peels until they are soft and pulpy. They have a longer shelf life than fresh chutneys, more so if refrigerated. Tomato and mango chutneys belong to this category. Those made with seasonal fruits in this manner are stored and served throughout the year. Dry chutneys are prepared with toasted coconut, sesame seeds, toasted red chilies and dal. They remain fresh for an even longer time at cool room temperature.
One interesting type of ginger chutney is made in Kerala. Vararuchi, an eminent scholar from the court of King Vikramaditya was invited by a Brahmin to have a meal at his home. To test the Brahmin’s intellect, Vararuchi said that he would accept the invitation only under certain conditions. One condition was that the scholar wanted to be served 1,000 curries. Though the host was confused, his daughter assured him that she could handle it. The guest was impressed when she served him injithayiru, a simple chutney of ginger, thick yogurt and salt. It is also called ayiramkari (thousand curry) because it helps to digest 1,000 dishes. Over the years recipes for this chutney have incorporated green chilies as an ingredient.
Chutney travels abroad
During the colonial era, the British developed a taste for chutney. They adopted the dish and particularly favored sweet versions of it. British chutneys are usually spiced, sweet fruit chutneys with a consistency of jam. “Law’s Grocer’s Manual” by James Thomas Law of Liverpool published in 1896 listed chutneys named after Indian cities, including Bengal, Cashmere, Lucknow and Calcutta Howrah. By the 19th century Major Grey’s chutney and others created specifically for Western tastes were shipped to Europe. Major Grey, an officer in the Bengal Lancers, while in India, is believed to have created this chutney by combining mangoes, raisins, chilies, garlic, vinegar, sugar and spices. The formula was eventually sold to Crosse & Blackwell. Today Patak’s, a United Kingdom company founded by an Indian immigrant in 1957, also markets Major Grey’s chutney.
And as the British officers left India and traveled to other outposts in South Africa and the Caribbean, chutney made its way to these countries. Chutney recipes also changed, incorporating various local ingredients and vinegar for its preservative properties. Chutneys made of tamarind and mint, the two Indian restaurant staples, are better known Indian chutneys in the United States.
6 to 8 ripe tomatoes
Salt to taste
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
3 teaspoons cumin powder
2 teaspoons powdered fenugreek seeds
4 teaspoons cayenne powder (or less if you prefer a milder taste)
¼ teaspoon asafetida powder (optional)
A few fresh curry leaves
1. Use a knife to score an X at the stem end of each tomato, and drop them in boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove them, and drop them into cool water. It will be easy to peel off the skin. Cut the peeled tomatoes in half, remove the seeds, and slice the tomatoes into thin pieces. I prefer tomatoes without skin and seeds for this chutney. If you like you can simply chop up the tomatoes and proceed with the recipe.
2. In a saucepan, cook the tomatoes and two tablespoons of water along with salt and turmeric powder. Remove from the stove, mash well, and set aside.
3. In a small skillet, heat the oil, and add the mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start sputtering, add the cumin, fenugreek, cayenne, asafetida and curry leaves, and fry for a minute. Remove from the stove. (If left on the stove any longer, fenugreek powder will burn and taste bitter.)
4. Combine the cooked tomatoes with the spices, and mix well. This chutney will keep well in the refrigerator for two weeks.
Top photo: Chutneys with their ingredients. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran