When a chutney is more than just a condiment

Can you spot the aamer chaatnee
or Bengali mango chutney here?
This post relives memories of eating chutneys in Kolkata and talks of the difference between those chutneys and the other chutneys that I came across after I moved out of home. The post is based on personal experiences and not historical research. I would love to know more about the origins of chutney 

An afternoon when Calcutta chutney memories acted as a condiment to flavour my life in Mumbai

I sat down with a bowl of chilled aamer chaatni for dessert the other day after a sumptuous Bengali lunch of dal, alu bhaaja (deep fried potato slivers) and boneless ilish patoori (deboned hilsa steamed in a banana leaf with a mustard and green chilli paste) sent home by the restaurant Bhojohori Manna in Mumbai

This immediately brought back a rush of childhood memories from Kolkata. Especially of the Durga Pujas feasts of yore. We used to (and still do) have a community Durga Puja in the apartment complex that I grew up in Kolkata. On each day of the Puja, lunch would be served in the parking lot in front of the pandal (shamiana) where the puja was held. As I grew older, I took on poribeshon or serving duties at the pujo myself.

I started with serving salt and lime when I was a kid still in shorts. Then I graduated to giving out the bhaajas or fries when I entered my teens. This was a Bengali rites of passage of sorts. As I grew older, I was given the buckets of torkari (veggies) to serve too and occasionally the chutney at the end. The distribution of khichuri, fish, biryani and meat and sweets involved high stakes and that the kakus and kaimas (uncle and aunties) of the 'committee' kept the serving of those to themselves. In case you are wondering, non-vegetarian food was served during our Durga Pujo feasts except on Ashtami which was all vegetarian.

I would sit down to eat with the last batch of diners after having done with my serving duties for the afternoon. 

Lunch done, I would fill a a bhaar (earthen cup) with the chutney that was served with the meal. I would then go a corner and eat it with relish. There would be a different chutney on each day of the pujo.

Let's now move up three decades to the lunch in Mumbai that I started this post with. I must point out that I only had a few spoons of the chutney this time and not a whole bowl or bhaar. Portion control is my new mantra. With issues of a family history of diabetes, an ever expanding girth and double chin and weight related back pain problems weighing on my mind, I did not eat the chutney this time with the gay abandon of my youth.

However, I did relish the few bites that I took that afternoon, right up to the skin of the mango which I ate ate up too as is customary. 

What good's a pleasure without a bit of guilt?

Had the aamer chutney  in Mumbai in a Di Bella coffee mug unlike in the maatir bhaar of my childhood.
The effects of portion control

When a chutney is a dish in itself

"Hold on, did you say that you had an entire bowl of chutney when you are a kid? That's impossible. Chutney is something that you have on the side with a dish and not as a dish," you ask?

Yes, yes I did so, but let me explain what happened. 

Chutneys are a pan Indian concept of course and we Bengalis don't own it. There are pickled chutneys and fresh ones. In most cases, chutneys across the country are indeed used as condiments and flavour enhancers which embellish a meal.

Say hello to the Bengali chutney

The Bengali version of the chutney that I am referring to is not just had as a condiment though. For us it is a way of life!

What I mean to say, leaving the theatrics aside, is that this chutney can be had as a dish in itself. It is not necessarily a 'condiment' as it is not used to enhance a dish. Though it sure does enhance a meal!

The Bengali chutney is different from some of the other chutneys that I have comes across later in life. Let me give you a few examples of what the Bengali chutney is not.

It is not a pickled dish and usually doesn't have preservative qualities unlike chutneys such as the Gujarati mango choondo. Nor is it a flavouring base such as the green coconut, coriander and chilli chutney of the chutney sandwiches of Mumbai or the chutney applied on the fish in the patra ni machhi of the Parsis. Nor, unlike the the coconut and other chutneys served with South Indian tiffin items such as idlis, dosas and vadas, is it an accompaniment to savoury food dishes

The Bengali chutney consists of  a variety of fruits and vegetables cooked together in a sugary syrup with spices such as kalo jeere (Nigella seeds), ginger and an array of other flavourings in combinations that cary from house to house. 

The most common Bengali chutney that I have come across is the tomato chutney. The base of this chutney tends to be slightly watery. My mother and granny would make tomato chutney at home. Interestingly, tomatoes were not native to India or Bengal till a few centuries back so do keep this  in mind while arguing about the recipe for an 'authentic' tomato chutney! This dish is a result of ingenuity after all.

In weddings and special feasts, the simple tomato chutney is glammed up by adding aam shokto (candied dry mango or mango leather), dates and raisins and even cashews at times. The syrup is thicker in consistency here. 

The aamer chutney, which sparked off this post, is made with unripe mango and is a summer favourite. I asked chef Sanjib Das of Bhojohori Manna about the mango that he used. He told me that he used the 'badami mango' local to Mumbai. This is cheaper than Alphanso. In Kolkata he tole me that himshagor and fojli mango are used. Lyangra, a local favourite there, is not used much as it is very fibrous and doesn't lend itself well to being cooked.

This is a good example of 'eat local'. Using local ingredients in immigrant recipes and adapting to one's new land.

There's also a 'plastic' chutney made with thin slices of unripe papaya I think. Another chutney that often makes its appearance is the anarosher chaatnee which is made with pineapple.

When you look forward to the finale right from the start

The chutneys of my childhood were eaten at the end of a meal. If at a feast, then this was after the main course and before one had the mishti doi and sweets. A palate cleanser you could say though we didn't know of the term back then.

These chutneys are best paired with papor or papad. The papar is deep fried in this case and not roasted. The fun is to use the papad as a spoon and scoop up the chutney and then to pop the whole thing in to your mouth at one go. Experiencing the salt of the papad spreading into sweet of the chutney and feeling the contrasting textures of the crunchy papad, syrupy chutney and slow cooked and softened fruits coming together is a brilliant example of Bengali culinary hedonism at its best.

Licking up the good stuff

Spoons were seldom given in the sit down Bengali feasts when I was a kid. So the runny chutney, and later the doi, would have to be eaten using your fingers and at the end you would have to lick your fingers up. Now most meals are served at buffets in festive occasions and with cutlery of course.

My friend and food blogger Rhea Mitra Dalal told me that some of her Bengali friends had told her that the Bengali word chaatny comes from chaata which means 'to lick'. 

Wikipedia says the same about the Hindi word chutney. That it comes from chatni which means 'lick' in Hindi. I asked my friend Kaniska Chakraborty about this and he went and asked his mother about it. His mom, Mrs Krishna Chakraborty, said that word chutney originates in Sanskrit and is from the verb 'to lick.'

I guess this explains the appearance of chutney in a variety of Indian languages given that Sanskrit is the mother of so many of them.

You will now find the word chutney in the Western world. I have come across chutneys in the UK and Australia which are served as condiments with steaks and sandwiches.

When a chutney moves up the chain

As I said earlier in the post, we had chutneys at the end of a meal in our house. I have seen this order observed in wedding and other feasts in Kolkata too. We are Bangals and my ancestors came from East Bengal or what is Bangladesh today. 

However, not all Bengalis have the chutney just at the end of the meal. I am told that the Ghotis, who belong to West Bengal, have their chutney during the meal too at times.

In fact I saw this 'strange' thing happen in front of my own eyes once.

I was in high school in St James Calcutta back then. I had gone to the house of the resident class genius, Arnab Chanda. Maths was my bugbear and Arnab had called me and another classmate over to help us understand some Trigonometry stuff before our board exams.

His mom, a college prof herself, had got the cook to make lunch for us. There was rice, a delicious chicken curry, dal and a tomato chutney waiting for us when we trooped in.

My eyes opened wide during the meal when I saw Arnab eat some chutney with rice and dal rather than after his meal. While I respected him for his acumen in math, this was too much for me to stomach. Chutney with dal and rice was unheard of as far as I was concerned.

Arnab calmed me down and told me that was this de rigueur in their house. That it was a Ghoti thing.

The many splendoured world of regional Indian food

And that's the thing about Indian food. There's so much variance and complexity to it and individuality too. As I used to say while conducting focus groups later in life, "there are no right or wrong answers" and a bit of that applies to regional Indian food too.

Take the fact that we pronounce the word as 'chaatnee' in Bengali and not 'chutney' unlike in many other Indian languages.

Spelling chaatnee in English makes it 'chutney' and this homogeneity robs it of a bit of its individuality you could say.

Now, we can't let them happen can we?

PS: Which are your favourite chutneys? Do write in at the comment section. I am listening

Please see:
1. I have never attempted to make chutney myself. You will find many recipes for it on the internet. This is one posted recently by Suma Raha or you can go to Bhojohori Manna or any other Bengali restaurant and get your fill of chutney
2. For more gyan on how to navigate your way through a Bengali meal, do check out the Kolkata chapter of my book, The Travelling Belly. Here's the link where you can place an order for it. Please do leave a review on Amazon if you have read the book