The first thing to arrive at an Indian table, even before the diners are seated, is an assortment of chutneys.
This condiment-like side dish, integral to Indian cuisine for more than 2,000 years, is a palate teaser, adds a kick to bland food, and layers of complexity to a simple dish. A chutney can save a dish gone wrong, or be used as a dip, salad dressing, or sandwich spread.
Each of India’s 29 states has its own signature chutneys prepared with seasonal vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, spices, and herbs. Chosen carefully, a chutney will complement dishes from any cuisine.
“Chutney” has its origins in the Hindi word “chatni,” which means “to lick,” alluding to its finger-licking, lip-smacking yumminess. But India has 22 official languages, not including the dialects, and chutney is known by different names throughout the country. When the British colonized India they began referring to the baffling array of these condiment-like dishes served with every meal as “chutney” and the name stuck.
Now chutneys can be found in urban grocery stores in almost every part of the world and in the last decade they have even appeared on menus of high-end restaurants as chefs experiment with fusion food.
The two most popular chutneys served in Indian restaurants in the United States are tamarind-date and coriander-mint-green chile. But visit an Indian grocery store and you will see entire aisles filled with a mind-boggling variety of chutneys — mango, coconut, lime, ginger, garlic, fenugreek, mint, and even okra.
A chutney can be sauce-like, chunky, or dry. It can be tart, sweet, spicy, or bitter. Some chutneys are prepared fresh with every meal and others are preserved, often for an entire year. Preserved chutney-making is a summer tradition in India, a social activity that brings women together. As the ferocious sun beats down, women gather in the cool courtyards of homes to make chutneys in bulk — enough to last them for the whole year and also to ship off to family and friends who have moved away. They roast spices and produce, sun-dry ingredients, chop, mix, and grind. They share cooking tips, gossip, recipes, and jokes.
Almost every household makes mango chutney when the fruit is in season for a few weeks in the summer. Mango chutneys are preserved with oil, sugar, salt, or jaggery, an unrefined sugar high in iron, and are the “wet” chutneys that are sauce or paste-like in consistency. The “dry” chutneys, on the other hand, are preserved by sun-drying or roasting the ingredients until all the water has evaporated. They tend to be powdery or flaky.
Walk through the streets of an Indian village in the summer and you will be assaulted with more smells than you thought existed — peanuts, lentils, and various seeds drying in the sun, spices being ground, and sliced raw mango reluctantly releasing its tangy, mouth-watering smell into the slight breeze. Within weeks, jars of chutneys will end up in kitchen pantries or be sealed for shipping to far-flung relatives.
While preserved chutneys are more versatile and can be served with almost every meal, the freshly prepared ones are carefully selected to complement a particular dish. Fresh coconut and coriander chutney is served with soft, steamed idlis made with fermented lentil batter; with thin, fluffy millet tortilla-like rotis comes a savory, bursting-with-spices green tomato chutney; with fried dumplings called pakoras, a green chile-mint chutney is a must.
Some chutneys are served on specific holidays and others for their health benefits. The bitter flowers of the neem tree are ground with jaggery and spices and eaten on New Year’s Day, that falls in April, signifying the bitterness and sweetness that go hand in hand in life. The high-calorie sesame seed chutney is eaten as winter sets in to build up the body’s reserves. Bittergourd chutney is believed to help with diabetes and fenugreek with digestion.
There is even an order, an etiquette, to chutney-serving at a sit-down meal. A tablespoon of salad is served first at the left edge of the plate and then, going clockwise, a teaspoon of salt, a pickle, a couple of dry chutneys, and lastly one or two wet chutneys. Curries, bread, and rice come after this. With the salads, pickles, chutneys, and curries along the edge, the plate resembles a painter’s color palette.
Chutney-making is a dying art in rural India as people move to cities and recipes, never written down and always passed word-of-mouth, are lost. Very few households still spend the summer months making chutneys and people buy the commercially produced ones from grocery stores.
The largest market for commercially prepared chutneys are the Indians living abroad. Any Indian will tell you that these chutneys taste different — there is too much sugar or salt, too much oil or vinegar. A commercially manufactured chutney often doesn’t have the right flavor, but it isn’t fair to compare it with one made by a loving relative and shipped halfway across the world just for you.
Yet, with the hectic pace of American life, Indians cannot afford to be picky about their chutneys. A leftover dish can be served again with a couple of different chutneys and makes the meal interesting. If a dish doesn’t turn out as it should, a cook will serve it with a chutney to mask his or her culinary mistake.
For Indians who’ve moved to a different country, a commercially produced chutney is still better than nothing. It represents a way of life left behind. It evokes memories of family meals, impromptu dinners with friends and neighbors when preserved chutneys were brought out to make a simple, everyday meal more festive. A chutney, for an Indian, is hope and home in a jar.Sena Desai Gopal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.