Condiment, accompaniment, relish, accessory, add-on. Call it what you want, but can you deny the irrefutable place that chutneys hold in Indian gastronomy? The doyenne of Bengali cuisine, Pragnyasundari Devi succinctly sums up its role on the Indian plate, when she says, “However grand a thali we may present to our esteemed guests, it’s for the final satisfaction of the taste buds (tripti) that the chutney was created. And if one eats with satisfaction, food is digested quickly.”
Satisfaction notwithstanding, the chutney in India’s vast culinary repertoire has an interesting back story. As observed by food historian and scholar Pushpesh Pant, it was probably the oldest assimilated dish in prehistoric India. Made fresh with ingredients like seasonal fruits, berries, greens, lentils and seeds, as opposed to matured preserves and pickles, in Bengal it ran the entire course, adding on fish and meats as well. Bengal’s legacy to Indian gastronomy is its culture of forage foods and zero-waste ethos.
Gurgaon-based food historian Pritha Sen, a Bengali, says, “Given its chequered history of abundance and wealth followed by poverty, natural and man-made calamities and finally, breaking of its economic backbone, the chutney stepped in as a tongue-tickling life-saver in Bengal. It required almost no cooking, which meant little fuel or oils, and went a long way to feed large families in times of plenty as well as scarcity.”
Taking its name from chatni meaning to lick, or perhaps from chasni meaning sugar syrup, the former name was adopted by Europeans when they arrived in Bengal, and became immediately associated with a sweet relish. However, that is neither the real nor the only story. Talking about the origin of chutneys, Sen explains that in India, a chutney goes by several names, whether sweet or savoury, dry or wet. For instance, across south India, it is called pachdi, podi, thecha, chammanthi, thogayal, etc. In Bengal, savoury mixes go by the name of bata meaning ground to a paste or simply, chatni. The latter is sweet and is had at the end of a meal, both as a relish and a palate cleanser.
Once the sugar bowl of the subcontinent, from where it gets its ancient name of Gauda, Bengal is blessed with an abundance of fruits and berries, and quickly embraced the European art of preserves, turning it into a slow-cooked rich chatni made with seasonal fruits and nuts. In doing so, Bengal’s plethora of savoury chutneys or batas, freshly made on the grinding stone or mortar and pestle, and had at the beginning of a meal or sometimes comprising the entire meal, got lost in all the richness of its sweet sibling.
From time immemorial, chutneys or spicy pastes in Bengal have been made with foraged ingredients rich in nutrients that today get thrown away as waste. Talking about lost chutney recipes, Sen says, “Steamed cauliflower leaves, which have thrice the amount of proteins, minerals, dietary fibre, iron, calcium and phosphorous as cauliflower itself, would be ground to a paste with chillies, garlic, chopped onions and kalonji seeds, and mixed with a drop of mustard oil. Or the peel of the green plantain—a rich source of iron, potassium, dietary fibre, polyunsaturated fats and amino acids—treated similarly. The list is endless—colocasia leaves and shoots, yam, pointed gourd and ridge gourd peel, gourd leaves and greens, moringa leaves, pumpkin, bottle gourd and seeds of the hyacinth bean, jackfruit or sesame, meats and dried fish pastes.”
Nothing that had nutrition was wasted, as is seen in the use of fish scales, fried and ground to a paste with fried garlic, onion and chillies to make a spicy chutney. The pasty texture and spicy flavours ensured that a little dollop could go with a plateful of rice and become a complete meal that combined proteins, minerals and carbohydrates. Unfortunately, these are now fading from memory and palates.
Across Nagaland, axone or akhuni chutney, made with fermented and smoked soyabeans, is a popular condiment. An acquired but addictive taste, to make it, you need to grind 5-6 green chillies, a couple of tomatoes, a tablespoon of soyabean paste, a piece of ginger and salt in a mortar and pestle. Made famous by the eponymous film Axone (2019), it has gained a lot of converts across India’s metropolises, along with bamboo shoot chutney, another relish popular across the Northeast.
Sneha Saikia, a Delhi based home chef, says, “Chutneys of the north east are different. They are mashed with a wooden pestle into a coarse paste.” She adds, “In Assam we have varieties of pitika (mashed chutney). We roast and mash bamboo shoots with boiled potatoes, raw onions, chillies and a dash of mustard oil to make a pitika.”
When it comes to chutneys, can one forget the scrumptious coconut chutney popular across the south? Be it idli, vadai or dosai—no “South Indian” breakfast is complete without the accompanying coconut chutney. There are many variations—with onions, ginger or garlic. There is also a plain coconut chutney with just curry leaves and mustard seeds as tempering. The red coconut chutney is popular in Kerala, while the green one is popular in Karnataka. Again, there is the pottukadalai chutney, made with grated coconut and fried gram dal.
Chef Manjul Myne of AnnaMaya Andaz in Delhi, says, “Chutneys play a vital role in stimulating tastebuds and uplifting the taste of any Indian dish it accompanies. They are also the most important part of a meal across regions and cultures, as they help in digestion and have antioxidant properties. Most importantly, chutneys are made fresh and have no preservatives, unlike sauces, preserves or achaars.”
Any kind of chutney is always a flavour bomb that elevates the dish it is served with or added to. It balances and rounds off all flavours of a particular recipe; adding spiciness, sweetness or sourness according to its ingredients. Chef Sanjyot Keer, founder of Your Food Lab, says, “When the spicy-sour paani of the paani puri is mixed with sweet chutney, it completes the taste of a perfect paani puri. Similarly, when the thecha is combined with sweet chutney in a vada pav, it gives a balanced, wholesome treat to the tastebuds. That’s how chutneys play an important role in the dishes they are served with. They not just add flavour or enhance taste, but in some cases, also add moisture. Think of idli—it’s dry when eaten alone. But when dunked in coconut chutney, you get moisture and enhanced flavour. Similarly, a samosa dipped in the sweet chutney enhances the taste while balancing its dryness.”
Most chutney recipes are family heirlooms. It’s only 2-3 generations since India’s urban population has started to become statistically significant, economically comfortable enough not to have to depend on foraged items, and cut-off from their rural roots. With grandmas and great-grandmas the last living link with the rural past, they are getting lost rapidly. Keer says, “One of the chutneys I learnt from my grandmom is pudina, pyaaz aur anar ki chutney (made of mint leaves, onions and pomegranate). She used to make it in a mortar and pestle—a big stone bowl with a long wooden mallet—grinding the ingredients, giving it a combination of fine and coarse textures. It was amazing to eat it while seeing her make it.”
Going back to childhood memories of chutney, vlogger Nikhil Chawla says, “Some dhabas in Connaught Place, Delhi used to make the best version of pickled onion with rustic green chutney made on the silbatta. In our childhood, we used to relish the pickled onion and the chutney while waiting for our food to be served. People still do that in North Indian restaurants.”
Every region in India has its own special chutney. Chef Tanvi Goswami of SAGA, Gurgaon, says, “I’m from Jammu and Kashmir, but I spent my adolescent years in Rajasthan. The influences of Rajasthan, its people and culture had a pivotal role in shaping my personality and skills. Ever so often, Rajasthani food is accompanied by a chilli-garlic chutney, owing to their spicy food. It acts as a cooling agent in the heat.”
Growing up in a Bengali household, the best chutney memory for home chef Ayandrali Dutta is of chalta (elephant apple) or amra (hog plum). “In summer, when visiting grandparents was a ritual, I would see my grandma use a mortar and pestle to gently crush the ingredients so that the right amount of juices were released during the stewing that followed. The taste was unique—a fabulous mix of sweet and spicy. It just elevated the meal a notch,” she says.
Like Bengalis, Biharis also have a tomato chutney. But unlike the Bengali one—which is sweet and made with dates, raisins and date palm jaggery—the Bihari tomato chutney is tangy. Tomatoes are grilled and mashed, then garnished with chopped green chillies, onions and coriander leaves. It goes well with sattu parathas, dal-rice or litti. Another chutney popular in Bihar is the teesi ki chutney, made with flax seeds, red and green chillies, and lime.
Nutritionist Kavita Devgan talks of some popular and basic chutneys of India and their health benefits:
Raw Mango Chutney
Raw mango delivers multiple vitamins—C, A, E—and minerals like calcium, magnesium and niacin, that are brilliant for our heart’s health and immunity. It is really good for our digestion and helps keep constipation at bay.
Rich in vitamin C, our best bet to boost immunity and keep flu, cold and myriad other viruses at bay.
It is loaded with micro-nutrients our body needs—vitamin A, B, C and E—along with minerals like calcium, phosphorous, iron, and magnesium, and aids in digestive juice secretion.
Gives you the advantage of allicin—a phytochemical that boosts circulation, warms the body from inside, and cleanses and nourishes the body, particularly the liver.
Garlic chutney helps in lowering blood cholesterol and in boosting digestion. It also helps lower blood sugar, increasing energy and boosting the immune system.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Taste in a Paste")