Chutneys – not just a side dish

Nothing quite enlivens a meal like a dollop of the Indian relish—a delicacy that holds the key to the magical transformation of meals, moods, and little bit more.

When it comes to innovation in the culinary world, nothing quite comes close to the famous chutney or pachadi as they are called in southern India or khatta (a word that stresses on sourness) in the east. An easy fit into most of our meals, chutneys have this magical power to transform any meal into a delight.

One of the many reasons that relish has become an integral part of our meals. Such is the charm of these pucker-up specialists that, in many cases, they complete a meal. Pakora and chutney for instance. Or for that matter, idli and chutney and even paratha and chutney. Such has been its association with Indian food that even the British, who found it extremely addictive, often said, “All things chickeney and mutton’y, taste far better when served with chutney”.

Tomato khatta
Tomato khatta, popular in the east, uses various spices as well sweeteners such as dates to provide a balance of not just taste but also nutritional properties.
Image courtesy CulinaryXpress

But what is it about this sticky, thick, sweet-sour relish that makes it such an integral part of our meals? So important that it often has the endorsement of nutritionists who recommend it as an “ideal accompaniment in moderate quantities”. To know this, says seasoned chef Nimish Bhatia, “one needs to know why chutneys were first made and what purpose they served in our ancient wellness practices which believed food is the key to wellness”.

Chutneys, continues the aspect cuisine expert, “The oldest mention is as chawanprash—an amla (Indian gooseberry) based sweet-sour concoction that was developed to aid the body in rejuvenating. This meant that each herb and ingredient used—and this included the spices in this format of kashayam—had to be treated in a manner that not only adds to the taste but also to the purpose for which the relish was being made.”

This explains why a lot of traditional chutneys contained ingredients that were used raw such as garlic; and why spices such as cumin were roasted or mustard was crackled in oil. These processes, says nutritional therapist Shveta Bhassin, “enabled the veds (traditional doctors) to extract the right kind of nutrients that would aid in the outcome. Take garlic, for instance. The reason most chutneys use it raw is that in this form, its properties are at their best, especially the anti-inflammatory properties and nitric oxide that helps keep blood vessels relaxed and hence is heart healthy. Similar is the case with dry roasting of cumin seeds. When heated, cumin’s oil activates and with it, so does its various antioxidants properties.”

The experts continue, “Even the cooked chutneys were designed to serve the following purpose: first to create taste, a kind of pucker-happy, tingling in the palate which kickstarts digestive juices thus enabling the body to break down food as soon as it reaches the stomach; and two, as a vessel that allowed ingestion of spices and herbs in a more concentrated form minus the adverse effects.”

Chutney ingredients
Aside from enhancing taste, chutneys also serve as effective vessels that allow ingestion of spices and herbs in a more concentrated form, minus the adverse effects.

Chef Bhatia says, “This was one of the reasons why different methods of introducing taste was weaved into the process of chutney making. Take for instance, the mint chutney. While most herbs are used raw in north Indian chutneys; the coconut chutney down south gets its addictive flavours only after tempering with mustard seeds, dry red chillies, and curry leaves with a dash of hing. In the east, this led not only to the creation of the concept of phutan, but also the tradition of cooked chutneys such as aam khatta and bilati-khejuri khatta (tomato and dates chutney). Each component not only upped the delicious factor but also aided in digestion of the food it was served with. Like when curry leaves are added to a chutney, it ensures a boost of folic acid in the body that helps absorb iron and beat anaemia. Cooking it destroys the folic acid, thus leaving tempering as the only option to make it crisp and palpable.”

Another example of how different techniques up the health properties of chutney is tomatoes. While uncooked tomatoes are great in glutathione content – an antioxidant produced naturally in the body that ensures better digestion and immunity – when roasted or cooked (according to Cornell University research), it enhances the levels of phytochemicals particularly lycopene, which is good for the heart, bones, skin, and overall health.

“The brilliance of chutneys or khatta as we say here,” says Odia food researcher Alka Jena (founder, CulinaryXpress), “isn’t just the knowledge with which they are composed but also the fascinating layering that gives these relishes their unique characteristics and complexities. And yet, each of them is versatile enough to adopt newer natural flavours. The tomato khatta, for instance, can be made with the pickling flavours of a panch phutan tempering that would give it that ‘puckering taste’ and digestive ability; it can be layered with dates for extra natural sweetness and nutrients that are kept intact by not crushing or overcooking the dates; and it can be taken to the spicier side just by adding warm spices, chillies and curry leaves to give it that beautiful aroma and taste. Another such example is the wood apple chutney we make where the use of spices such as cumin, salt, sugar and chilli powder/pepper is only to enhance the flavour of the superfruit.”

Coconut chutney with idli
Coconut chutney, popular in the south of the country, gets its addictive flavours after tempering with mustard seeds, dry red chillies, curry leaves and a dash of hing.
Image courtesy CulinaryXpress

Similar is the case of Ugadi pachadi or southekai pachadi, which use neem to give the slight hint of bitterness that helps in digestion, says seasoned chef Vijaya Bhaskaran (Research Head, Olam International). “This ‘raita’ version of chutney from Mangalore isn’t just a fantastic summer coolant thanks to the use of beaten curd in it. The sheer number of tastemakers used in it including grated coconut, roasted cumin and chillies, are all tailormade to keep the body cool, gut healthy and make the food served along easy to digest.”   

How did chutney do it? Through the aspect of neurogastronomy, says Chef Bhatia, who rates chutney—all kinds of them—among the few dishes that work not just the taste buds, but also the mind. “Chutney, especially where the sourness quotient is dominant followed by spicy-sweetness and others, are known to not only excite the tongue but in doing so, also rejigs metabolism, releasing a happy hormone called dopamine. Add to that the aroma of a freshly ground chutney and the brain almost feels the same joy as one would when dancing to a peppy beat.”

Chutneys with aloo tikkis
Chutneys add entirely new dimensions to several Indian snacks. And the flavour profiles can range from spicy or sour to sweet or tangy.
Image courtesy Raveesh Vyas

In fact, this mind-palate play was one of the reasons why chutneys, including those that were cooked, were always made fresh as they were most effective then. The only exception is the podi or the dry powder chutneys such as the garlic one had with vada pav, which were designed for better shelf life and used ingredients not only to add taste and longevity but also to enhance the properties of the main ingredient. In Mumbai’s famous garlic chutney, for instance, it is all about the garlic.

The dominating spicy flavours not only ensure that digestive juices start working as soon as the relish hits the flavour centres of the tongue, but also excite the palate which ensures faster digestion and reins in portion sizes, thus earning brownie points as an effective way to lose weight.

The beauty of chutneys, says Bhassin, “is that they follow the properties path rather than the nutritive one that most Indian dishes with shared ancestry boast. The role of chutney in a meal is to create ‘flavourable’ conditions for better digestion of the food it is paired with. Thus, the onus has been always on building up the taste quotient and not the nutrients. And that is where the mash texture helps; while it easily incorporates flavours, loads of it some time when it comes to sour and spiciness, it can still keep fat at bay when not needed”.

And this focus on taste eventually transformed chutney into this magic wand that not just makes a meal “taste” delicious, but also complete it. After all, says Chef Bhaskaran, “Even when it is all about taste, chutneys do come with their fair share of nutrients that work.”

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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