It may sound as if chutneys and huskies have little to do with one another.
First, there’s the physical distance. The habitat of huskies—those bear-like, fluffy dogs with Nordic reserve—is normally the far north of the planet. The habitat of chutneys—those spicy, effervescent condiments infused with tropical exuberance—is normally its middle latitudes.
Second, there’s the normative distance. Huskies are alive, all fur and, when riled, ferocity, products of nature. Chutneys are inanimate, the product of human ingenuity and the eternal quest for culinary inspiration.
Improbably, they came together in my mind one cool January morning while I paused near a Pride of India, a grand flowering tree that makes up one of many species in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park. The only time my mind really has time to think and tick is either when I lie awake in bed some nights or take my Sunday morning sabbatical in the park.
I was watching a Great Dane getting the zoomies, a word I learnt from my 10-year-old, whose Sunday routine requires that I play escort, driver and nanny while she volunteers at the dog park. As the Dane was pounding along, it was suddenly set upon by a husky that had gotten loose from its owner. Now, huskies like to dominate other dogs. They puff themselves up, push around and try to push down other dogs. With a Dane, this is mission impossible. The husky nearly got knocked down twice before giving up and searching for easier prey to dominate.
I am a veteran watcher of episodes in the life of huskies every Sunday because there are so many of them in Bengaluru and Cubbon Park, the products of many unscrupulous breeders and a general craze to possess a husky in a largely unsuitable climate. Huskies are built for endurance in the snow, which of course is hard to find in the cradle of a tropical peninsula.
I discard my disapproval and watch the huskies brighten my day. My mind is empty and wanders along with their dominating antics—I find it quite therapeutic, really. During the Great Dane zoomies, I thought of the chutney waiting for me at home. For only the second time, our part-time cook, a young Tamil woman called Ambika, had made me a dried-fish chutney.
This chutney had come, I must admit, from the wife’s ceaseless effort to keep our daily food fresh and refreshed. For someone who does not cook, she spends a substantial amount of time pushing me and Ambika to change our daily menus. That includes not just her vegetarian food but ours as well.
I find this touching because some of the food I eat, she abhors. She cannot stand the smell of dried fish and complains that it stinks up her house. Yet she will share her table with me despite the pungent smell wafting under the nose. In the early starry-eyed days of our marriage, I even found her cooking dried prawns once, standing a foot away from the stove and stirring with one hand and holding her nose with the other.
Chutneys are a very important part of our morning routine, which is perhaps why I ruminate about their intricacies on Sunday mornings. Actually, chutneys are not very intricate—they only require a little imagination, which is what produced the chutney without coconut in my kitchen, after one of my arteries showed up a little block a few years ago. We never imagined chutney for dosa without coconut but after fine-tuning the recipe, we now find the standard version with chutney somewhat insipid. My family has a rich tradition of chutneys, with my late aunt writing about them in her self-produced Marathi book, which includes chutneys of pumpkin skin, snake-gourd seeds, gooseberry and raw mango.
We are not big on chutneys with lunch or dinner but I enjoy the Naga, Manipuri or Mizo chutneys that occasionally find their way to our table for Sunday lunch, courtesy home cooks from the North-East who live and market their wares in east Bengaluru. These chutneys, like the Tamil ones, often use dried fish or shrimp and can be sharp, pungent and entirely enchanting.
I got home that husky-watching morning eager to sample the dried-fish chutney, made this time from Bombay duck, the improbably named gelatinous species of lizardfish so beloved of my family. It was delicious with chapati, red rice, dal, salad and, um, paneer. For tea, I had the chutney with a whole-wheat bread from Nitash Lalkaka, our friendly neighbourhood baker. A little went a long way. The taste, like the huskies, dominated everything else.
Dried Bombay duck chutney
5 dried Bombay ducks, wash and soak in water for 10 minutes
2 onions, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp red-chilli powder
Quarter tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp oil
Half tsp mustard seeds
2 green chillies, slit
Salt to taste
Heat the oil and pop the mustard seeds. Then sauté onions until translucent, add tomatoes and green chillies and sauté for a minute. Add turmeric, chilli powder and salt. Sauté and cover and cook for 15 minutes. As it starts to dry or release oil, add the dried fish. Toss and cook for five minutes.
Coriander and ginger chutney
1 bunch coriander with stalks, washed
Half-inch piece ginger
3 tbsp roasted chana dal
1 medium onion, sliced
Juice of 1 lime
Salt to taste
Grind all ingredients, adding water so that it gains the consistency you desire.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.