‘Chutney’ doesn’t require an introduction, at least not for Indians! For centuries, they have been a part of Indian cuisine! Often overlooked as a condiment languishing at the edges of a plate, chutney is a delight bursting with flavors when paired with Indian cuisine. Though several stories exist about its origin, from being a companion to rice and idli, a topping for chats, or just a dollop in sweet-end dessert, its simplicity suggests that it could be one of the oldest foods man has eaten.
Chutney refers to a variety of spicy sauces served with main dishes. Crunchy and flavourful, they are a fantastic accompaniment to savories. In essence, they consist of seasonal fruits, vegetables, herbs, legumes, spices, or even fish, or a combination of these. Depending on the type of flavor, these are either smooth or chewy, sweet, sour, sweet-and-sour, hot, and hot-and-sour. It can also be runny or jammy in consistency.
The story is well-known – and may even be apocryphal – but it illustrates the many benefits the chutney brings to a meal. Once, when Shah Jahan fell ill, the hakims recommended that he eat a dish that could satisfy his appetite without making him bloated. Thus, the chaat was invented – a dish based on lentils and pulses, topped with a spicy mint-coriander chutney and a sweet-sour date-tamarind chutney. The chutney and chaat were the last two ingredients that gave the dish its name, since both originate from the Sanskrit word ‘chaatni’ meaning ‘to lick.’
Although chutney is served in small amounts, it is packed with micronutrients, including mint, cumin, coriander, flax seeds, garlic, and dry ginger, as recommended by Shah Jahan’s hakims. Despite this story’s suggestion, one cannot say that chutney was invented because of chaat. Food historian Pushpesh Pant asserts that chutney, in its simplest form, which is a coarse paste created by grinding a variety of ingredients, maybe the oldest form of food prepared by homo sapiens.
‘It is reasonable to suggest that the chutney is older than any other recipe known by homo sapiens. It was most likely ‘invented’ by our hunting-gathering ancestors by accident, maybe even before cooking transformed our eating habits. Crushed berries, fruit, and leaves, seeds and nuts render whatever we put in our mouth tastier and slowly become a habit or preference,’ he said.
Tempt your taste buds! In every state in India, there are numerous chutney recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. In addition to chaats, fresh green chutney (a combination of coriander leaves, mint leaves, and green chillies), sonth chutney (made with dry ginger powder and dates), and tamarind chutney make great accompaniments. Coconut chutney complements South-Indian dishes like Idlis and Dosas well. Both tomato chutney and green mango chutney have different variations in each state of India and are among the most popular chutneys! A popular chutney in Mumbai is the shengdana chutney (made from groundnut paste). There is also hot chilli chutney (the Assamese ghost chilli chutneys are for the most daring foodies! ), green tomato chutney, berry chutney, onion chutney and the list goes on and on.
The spices used in these preparations include cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, turmeric, dry ginger powder (sonth), dry mango powder (aamchur) coriander seeds, nigella seeds, mustard seeds, and asafoetida (hing). Jaggery, lemon, chilli, and tamarind are used to balance the flavors in some chutneys. Like pickles, chutney is a culinary component that adds umami to a meal. Throughout time, chutney has grown into umami bombs that offer a variety of tastes everywhere it is served.
In a country as diverse as India, it’s hard to find a single unifying factor, especially when it comes to food. Dal and rice are two common threads that bind us all. Perhaps chutney should be added to the list, given how essential it is to our survival and how much pleasure we take in turning even the most ordinary of ingredients into a harmonious, tasty melange.