The word chutney has been borrowed to describe Chutney Music, a genre of Indo-Caribbean fusion music created by Indian immigrants who moved to the Caribbean. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s epic novel, uses chutney as a metaphor to talk about biases in personal narratives. The word itself can be traced back to its Sanskrit origins—chatan, meaning, to lick. Perhaps, that must be its primary objective.
Sweet, salty, sour, spicy, grasshoppers, marijuana and mangoes, there aren’t too many flavours or things that haven’t been chutnified. “The chutney is primarily an aperitif that was created as an accompaniment to something,” says Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, a Mumbai-based food writer.
This being the brief, the chutney has been interpreted locally. “Despite the teeny-weeny space it occupies on the plate, the varieties of the chutney are mind-boggling,” she adds.
Chutneys can be fresh, made just by pounding together ingredients like the celebrated coconut chutney in most southern states, or they can be cooked. The tamarind chutneys from the southern states, and most Bengali chutneys, like the plastic chutney with papaya, or the common tomato chutney, are usually cooked. The cooked chutney category overlaps slightly with pickles and most dictionaries describe pickles as a subset of the chutney, says Ghildiyal.
Explosion of flavour: (clockwise from left) Coconut chutney, tomato chutney, tamarind chutney, green curry leaf chutney and beetroot chutney. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint; location & food courtesy ITC Maratha, Mumbai
“Chutneys have no preservatives unless some ingredient by default works as a preservative, like in the south they use tamarind, which is also a preservative. In other places, lemon juice or vinegar serves the same purpose,” says Ghildiyal.
Like most cuisine, the chutney adapts itself to local produce and local needs. Colder climes in Uttarakhand, for instance, have given rise to a til ki chutney (sesame seed chutney) as well as a bhang ki chutney (marijuana coupled with kagzi nimboo, a type of lime), both consumed for their heat-inducing properties.
The same way, most of the coastal chutneys have a lot of chillies, first because of their easy availability (especially green chilli on the coasts), but also because chillies—and the sweat they induce—help keep the body cool, says chef Manu Nair, Dakshin, ITC Grand Maratha, Mumbai.
The chutney is popular in almost every pocket of the country but in the south, the chutney is present in “pretty much all the three meals of the day”, says Nair. There are two types of chutneys, classified by how perishable they are: fresh chutneys that need to be consumed on a daily basis (the common chutneys with coconut, coriander, tomatoes), and the longer-lasting ones.
These non-perishable ones have evolved because of the pilgrimages that happened—and still happen—in the south.
The longer-lasting ones come in varieties: podi (dry chutneys) and thovial (semi-dry). “Thovial, because of the high level of tamarind, can stay fresh for a long time—such as pumpkin thovial, cabbage thovial.
Podis are made with varieties of dal that are first roasted, mixed with spices, then dried, and tamarind is added to them,” says Nair. The most popular podi—now also sold packaged by MTR—is the mulaga podi or gunpowder that goes well with idli and dosa.
The idea of a chutney being the same as “reduction” (a fruit/vegetable cooked to a concentrate) has worked well with Indian chefs hoping to contemporarize Indian food. Chef Joy Banerjee, chef-owner of Bohemian, a fine dining restaurant in Kolkata, has used the traditional Bengali kashundi (a chutney made using mustard and a touch of mango) to make a stir-fried chicken with orange, for his Durga Puja menu this year.
An already popular item on his menu is the grilled fish marinated with cool-er (kul) chutney. “The cool-er chutney contains chilli, coriander, works as a wonderful sweet-sour marinade for the fish,” says Banerjee.