In Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region, the seeds of the Cannabis sativa plant are roasted along with cumin seeds and dried chillies, powdered and blended into lime juice to make bhang ki chutney, a condiment that is equal parts tangy and fiery, with a touch of chilled-out equanimity. Food in the subcontinent is multi-sensory, and like the doosra in the armoury of an off-spinner, the one category of dish that puts the multi in multi-sensory is the chutney.
The British co-opted the Hindi word for licking (chaatna) and UK supermarkets still sell a variety of fruits cooked down with sugar in vinegar as “chutneys”. But every language in the subcontinent has different words to describe the stunning diversity of condiments and dips designed to complement a main dish’s flavour profile. From thuvayal in Tamil and thokku in Telugu to describe chutneys with a thicker consistency, to specific ones like the fiery thecha in Marathi, chutneys define the syncretic nature of food in this part of the world more than any other category of dish.
So, how do chutneys work? The general principles at play are about flavour balance at multiple levels. Heat to balance sweetness or starchiness. Sourness to balance blandness. Bitterness to balance cloying sweetness. Creaminess to balance sharpness and coarse nuttiness to balance creamy pastiness.
Let’s consider the ubiquitous coconut chutney served with idlis and dosas. An idli has a soft, pillowy mouthfeel and a mild sour taste from the lactic acid produced by the lactobacteria during fermentation, and little else. To counter the blandness of starches in general, we need heat and thus, green chillies. To balance the fluffiness of the idli, we introduce the harder nuttiness of coconuts and chana dal. The milk in the coconut helps tone down the heat of the chillies. And lastly, a tadka of curry leaves adds the savoury element, thanks to the sulphur-based flavour profile of the herb, while a garnish of coriander leaves adds a bright top note. The mustard seeds in the tadka add a crunchy mouthfeel and a black-looking visual counterpoint to the white of the coconuts. It’s fascinating how the multilayered flavours of food in India are often best described by the kind of language used by perfumiers.
The green chutney is another great example—the heat of the chillies, the sulphurous pungency of onion, garlic and kala namak, the citrusy zing of limes, the bright herbiness of coriander and the cooling counterpoint of mint make it a near universal condiment for practically any dish. If it’s too hot and needs a creamy texture, you can simply whisk the green chutney into yogurt (or mayonnaise).
Chutneys drive home the point that Indian cooking is not about fixed recipes but about general heuristics. It is therefore possible to think of an algorithm for making chutneys with whatever ingredients you have. A good chutney is a balance of seven elements. As a starting point, you can simply pick one item from each element and just blend it together.
The first element is cooked ingredients: These are typically things that taste better when cooked—like ridge gourd, pumpkin or brinjal . Whether you choose to steam, sauté or bake is entirely up to you. Baked or sautéed vegetables tend to add sweeter, more caramelly notes because of the browning reactions that happen at high temperatures.
The second element is raw ingredients: things that are tasty uncooked, like fruits. Some ingredients can be used both raw as well as cooked, depending on what kind of flavour you want, such as tomatoes and carrots.
The third element is nutty or crunchy ingredients: things like peanuts, cashews, coconut, chana dal or sesame. You can either roast them before using them to add extra nuttiness or use them as is. Nuts bring fats to the mix, and that in turn improves flavour by dissolving spice molecules.
The fourth element is spices : These can be fresh ones like ginger, garlic or onion, dried ones like cumin or herbs like coriander. Spices bring aroma to the party.
The fifth element is saltiness: This can come from regular salt, kala namak or even something like soy sauce, which adds more umami and saltiness at the same time.
The sixth element is acid: It adds sourness and is critical to making a chutney well-rounded. Acids like lime juice, tamarind or vinegar encourage salivation, which breaks down larger molecules faster in the mouth and thus makes food taste more delicious since your tastebuds tend to detect smaller molecules better than larger ones.
The seventh element is sweetness: It elevates other flavours when used in small amounts and can come from fruity ingredients as well as added sugar, jaggery or honey.
Once you have picked your ingredients, you can choose to go old-school and use a mortar and pestle, which tends to produce coarser textures and slightly more flavour. For a pestle tends to release aroma without heating ingredients, whereas the 1800 rpm motor in your mixie tends to cook ingredients a bit.
There is something innately beautiful about how a good cook designs chutneys. Like a talented make-up artist skilfully turning our uniquely banal faces into personalised works of art fit for film and television, a chutney is the outcome of a mindful consideration of the dish you just made and the deliberate concoction of something that consummates it across every dimension of flavour (and no, I did not consume bhang chutney before writing this sentence).
Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking.