At one point in the 2006 film, Khosla Ka Ghosla, the eponymous central character raises a somewhat curious demand. “Koi chutney wagairah nahin hai (is there no chutney with this?),” he asks, almost as if to seek acquaintance with what seems like an unfamiliar box of pizza. The patriarch’s query may have challenged a few precepts of culinary textbooks. But the chutney has a history of coming into its own in the unlikeliest of situations. The cooks in colonial kitchens, for example, did not take long to get used to it, so much so that one of the sayings of the Raj goes, “All things chickeney and mutton’y, taste better far when served with chutney.”
The accompaniment’s capacity to adapt to a diversity of challenges is part of some of my favourite childhood memories. A rather picky eater, I would often leave the cucumber or tomato sandwiches, packed for lunch by my mother, untouched. After all her sermons on eating well or not wasting food went unheard, my mother decided to add a twist to my school tiffin. One day, I opened the lunch box to find a different shade of green peering out from the slices of bread. It issued an inviting fragrance as well. The cucumbers, tomatoes and the bread were chomped down in a jiffy.
My mother would whip up this green spread in a matter of seconds. But at other times, the procedure was more elaborate. Mint and coriander leaves would be combined with tomatoes, green chillies, lemon, salt and a dash of sugar. The coriander stalks were left untouched — that’s the source of all flavours, my mother would say. She would give the ingredients a vigorous mix and once they had got acquainted with each other, it was time for her to summon her favourite kitchen lieutenant — the mortar and the pestle. The effervescence of the coriander, the earthy fragrance of the mint leaves, the zing of the chillies and the sweet-citrus smell of the tomatoes would combine to send signals to the tastebuds well before the chutney was on the table. The urge to lick off the mixture was even more irresistible in summers, when it got an extra twang with the addition of a green mango — no wonder, that chutney derives from the Hindustani word chatni, that means “to lick”.
“Food shouldn’t just be tasty, it should also be interesting,” my mother would say. For her, the accompaniments were not just a matter of adding zest to a meal. They were also her way of giving a free rein to the taste buds. It was, perhaps, this urge that led her to pair the green chutney with a relish made from tamarind, that had been soaked in warm water for about two hours. My mother would squash the tamarind into a pulp, and the sieved mixture would be left to boil slowly. Sugar balanced the tamarind’s tang, and the concoction acquired an ineffable sharpness with red chilli powder and saunth (ginger powder). There were pieces of chopped bananas to comfort the palate, too. This sticky, layered mixture stood in contrast to the grainy textures of the green chutney. The table would then be laid with paranthas and, at times, samosas.
The chutney is actually much more than an accompaniment. The date and tomato relish, my mother would say, is a palate cleanser. After a heavy meal, the burst of flavours issuing from the Bengali five spices (the panchphoron) nestled in the mushy tomatoes and dates, serve as an ideal preparation for the sweet dish, she would tell us.
The many-splendoured nature of the chutney made it a hit with the cooks of colonial India. Some took it home. And, the chutney adapted well. With there being no tamarind or mangoes in its adopted land, the relish struck a chord with apples and pears. Vinegar replaced the limes, ginger and cinnamon became the predominant spices. Fruit relishes and preserves are now an integral part of the British culinary culture.
Packaged chutneys today exist cheek-by-jowl with ketchups in supermarket shelves. Kamal Kishore Khosla’s desire for chutney with pizza, is, however, likely to remain unfulfilled. Perhaps, he would be happy that a few months ago, KFC introduced a chutney burger. It has none of the zest of the coriander sandwiches of my childhood, though.
As I give the final touches to this piece, my cooking help Mani tells me that breakfast is ready. The fragrance of the mustard tempering in the coconut chutney, that she makes with dosas, beckons.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Spread the Joy’