Often the most starred restaurants fail at giving you the kind of sweet satisfaction one gets when polishing off and licking their fingers after a simple home-cooked meal of dal, rice, and chutney. The star of such a meal is the humble-looking chutney dabbed on the side of the plate. A small portion is enough to transform a normal meal into a riot of delectable flavours.
The home-made chutney is part of a culinary legacy that’s handed down generations in India. It’s a long process—and rightly so, the rich flavours that slowly infuse the chutney need patience and the end result is a delicious concoction that smacks of the fragrance of its ingredients and nostalgia.
We’ve all watched our mothers or grandmothers laboriously grind the chutney into the smooth paste it is, a process that involved countless tastings, anecdotes and the heat of the Indian summers—all of which no glass sealed jar of chutney can hope to compare with. The grinding stones like all relics of the past, rendered obsolete have given way to mixers. While we all grow up and try relentlessly to replicate the magic of the chutney with our new-fangled machines, the taste of the perfect bowl of ‘nani ke haath’ ki chutney eludes us.
Let’s cast a look back at the origins of chutney.
The Mysterious Origins of Chutney
Thought to have originated a whopping 2000 years ago, the word chutney derives from the Sanskrit word caṭnī that translates to ‘to lick’ which is invariably the response we exhibit when we see chutney. The origins of chutney can be traced back to India but the exact story may be lost forever. There are a few theories around its birth.
The chutney may actually be one of the oldest forms of food consumed by our ancestors who at the time relied on hunting and gathering for daily sustenance. As food historian, Pushpesh Pant told The Indian Express, the chutney in its uncooked form made up of various ingredients is essentially an uncooked paste, crushed or ground. This indicates that chutney could have been an unwitting invention by our ancestors who relied on taste during gathering to decipher what was edible and poisonous and what was not, (much to their detriment). This could have spilled into the practice of mixing up the ingredients and crushing them together to chance upon this culinary discovery.
Another theory by food historian KT Acharya is that the chutney may well have been enjoyed by the people of the Indus Valley civilisation in 3,300 BCE, a theory supported by the discovery of stone grinders during the excavation of the historic, archaeological site.
Whoever they may be, chutney eaters don’t seem too fussed about finding out whose brainchild this culinary invention was as long as they can relish their chutneys. It isn’t just us who love a good chutney; many from different parts of the world in history have come to India and tasted some aromatic chutney just to get completely enamoured with its explosion of flavours.
Chutney Spices up Early Trade
The Romans were ambitious traders and their search for tradeable items led them to India from where they exported cloth majorly but the chutney had them fascinated.
With time, Indians developed ways to preserve chutneys by maturing fruits and mixing them with spices, and then using an acid-base such as tamarind juice or vinegar, to preserve the condiment for longer.
Around 30 BC, the Romans adopted the fruit-maturing technique prevalent here and spread the word about chutney in their sprawling, well-oiled trading network. Their caravan routes on land which ran through Asia Minor and the Middle East facilitated the chutney’s travails around the world. Trading subsequently shifted to sea routes. However, there was more travel in store for the chutney.
And Wins Worldly Acclaim
Around the 17th century, English traders had begun to set foot on Indian shores, primarily for spices, and quickly found favour with chutney. The chutney with its saucy zest was a far cry from the ship’s diet of dry, salted food. Chutney was taken along to enliven meals and the salt, spices, and sugar ensured that they did not spoil.
Britain’s natives soon tasted the condiment and no surprises, they were hooked. The English tried to replicate the chutneys but since mangoes, tamarind and limes were native to India, they tried with apples, rhubarbs, sultanas, raisins, and dates. The result was a sweet and sour sticky fruit jam. The officials of the East India Company by then had accorded chutney its status as a luxury item, commonly referred to as ‘mangoed’ fruits and vegetables.
By the time British colonial power was consolidated in India, chutney was quite the sensation. It appeared on tables in Britain as appetizers in the 1780s.
Not long after, chutney began being sold in branded bottles in the West in the 1800s. A Major Grey was credited with making chutney easily available to the public. Some say he was an officer in the regiment known as Bengal Lancers and encountered a particularly delicious bowl of chutney whipped up with mangoes, chillies, garlic, vinegar, and myriad other spices. A eureka moment followed and Major Grey was determined to bottle up this lovely concoction and spread it all over the world. Bottles of Major Grey made landfall in America.
Of course, as noted in Santha Rama Rau’s book ‘The Cooking of India’, no self-respecting Indian chutney maker would, at the time, be caught dead buying a bottle of chutney when they could make the original at home. However, there were some cross-culinary influences in cuisine as seen in Bengal when Calcutta was the capital of British India. As food historian Pritha Sen says, the sweeter Bengali chutneys were influenced by the sweet and sour chutneys adopted by the British. The introduction of exotic fruits such as tomatoes led to the tomato chatni and the affluent class started using dried fruits in their chutneys.
As for the love the British held for chutney, this limerick included by Santha Rama Rau in her book, written by John F.Mackay sums it up,
All things chickeney and mutt’ny
Taste better far when served with chutney.
This is the mystery eternal:
Why didn’t Major Grey make colo-nel?
Chutney meanwhile, made its way to the British colonies in early America and Australia. Indians carried their secret chutney recipes to the Caribbean regions as well as Africa.
There’s More to the Chutney Than Meets the Eye
Not only do the drool-worthy chutneys add zest to the accompanying samosa or deep-fried bhatura, but they also help in the digestion of food so that greasy food settles easier on the bowels. It’s packed with micronutrients as well as vegetables or herbs with medicinal properties. In the early ages, Indian cooking followed a minimal waste approach so leftover ingredients could also be added to the mix.
The ingredients used could also be seen against a backdrop of socio-economic factors. Some of the chutneys made with cheaper vegetables such as onions and garlic were affordable for poorer sections of society. The pungent aroma would satiate the senses to give one the illusion of feeling full. Since the condiment doesn’t really require fuel and can be eaten uncooked, one just had to look around to see the ingredients easily available such as coconut in Kerala or the red ants and their eggs in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region could be crushed into a chutney.
You’ll be spoiled for choice when you look for varieties of chutneys across India. Some chutneys have become essential in meals so much so that a meal can be incomplete if they’re missing. Case in point, idli or vada without the coconut chutney? Sacrilege.
There are such vivid varieties of finger-licking regional chutneys all across India with fascinating ingredients. For example, gongura (red sorrel leaves) feature prominently in Andhra’s chutneys and pickles which can be devoured with curd and rice whereas Bengal’s aam sotto khejur, is a sweet blend of dates and aam papad, ladled out on plates as dessert. Kashmir’s ‘mooli ki chutney’ has radishes stir-fried in mustard oil with tangy lemon and spiced with chilli powder to make the heart sing. The more adventurous gastronomes can head to Nagaland for their dried fish chutney mixed with bhut jolokia, the hottest chilli pepper on the planet—not for the faint-hearted.
Chutneys have held on to a glorious legacy while many have come and gone without a trace. For 2000 years and counting, chutney may well outlive us all; always surprising people with its full-bodied riot of taste, that little tasty tidbit that lends the meal its secret enjoyable edge.
All chatpate illustrations created by Hashmeet Sahani