A case for chutney
A look at the 'daavi baju', or left side of a traditional Maharashtrian 'thali', where chutneys occupy pride of place
My three children, all under the age of 10, begin and end their day with chutney pudi. In the mornings, they like their soft white, buttered bread lightly sprinkled with it or their mini idlis tossed in ghee and chutney. For a post play-in-the-park snack, they’re usually happy to be offered a dosa with chutney on the side. For dinner, the younger ones will barely touch their poli (chapati) and whatever bhaaji I’ve tried to trick them into, but they will go through several spoonfuls of chutney pudi. My daughter gets anxious when she sees the chutney levels go down in the plastic box it is stored in. The children get together and promptly call their grandmother to order a new batch.
I can’t blame them. It’s genetic. My grandmother took pride in running a very spartan yet welcoming kitchen. In her south Mumbai home, she had a large kitchen with a commanding divider-cum-kitchen shelf that carried variously sized jars and whatnot.
Right beside her tin of filter coffee, bought from Mumbai’s Philips Coffee & Tea store, and the well-used sugar tin, was the chutney corner. A two-tiered Lazy Susan housing two blue plastic containers sat in the corner. The smaller one contained the lehsun (garlic) chutney—that ubiquitous condiment of the Marathi pantry—that the household could not do without.
It was made in small quantities, to ensure that it did not go rancid and the pungency of the raw garlic stayed fresh enough to clear your nostrils. This was eaten dry with fresh, flame-roasted bhakri or mixed with home-made yogurt and used as a dip.
This simple chutney is made by pulsing garlic cloves, grated dried coconut, cumin seeds, salt, a tiny bit of sugar and red chilli powder in a coffee grinder. It is moist yet dry and can be stored at room temperature.
The larger container held our beloved chutney pudi, and I don’t think my brother and I managed to get through a single meal without it. Perfected by my great-grandmother, the chutney pudi (known as phutanyachi chutney in most homes) is a rite of passage to the world of adult chutneys because it uses roasted chana dal (Bengal gram) and small quantities of chillies, making it more appealing to evolving palates. The powdery quality of the ground gram acquires texture and flavour with the addition of roasted and coarsely powdered dried coconut, curry leaves, and, most importantly, asafoetida. As children, when my brother and I would pester our mother or grandmother for an emergency snack, we would be handed a hot poli roll, soft and multilayered, slathered liberally with home-made ghee and sprinkled with chutney pudi.
The chutney makes its appearance with the usual suspects—idli, appe, dosa, amboli—and with a side of freshly made unsalted butter, it is a match made in heaven, clichés notwithstanding. Maharashtrians of my generation enjoy it as much when it’s sprinkled over slices of buttered (salted, here) soft white bread. The nutty, spicy-sweet savouriness of the chutney with that curry leaf accent takes plain old bread-butter to a complex gastronomic level that the linguistic confines of “umami" do not cover.
The daavi baju, or the left side of a traditional Maharashtrian thali, is made up of chutneys, pickles and salads—essential condiments for a meal. Despite the shrinking size of most urban Maharashtrian thalis, this side remains important. My father’s Deshastha (from the plateau region) genes compel him to like another variant of my Kokanastha (from the coast) grandmother’s lehsun-khobra chutney—one that uses raw peanuts instead of coconut, birthing the Solapuri shenga chutney. This is a classic lesson in the topographical variety of Maharashtra. The coast, unlike the plateau, offered ample use of fresh coconuts.
A versatile condiment, the chutney, literally meaning “something that can be licked", is, by definition, an appetizer. Ayurveda suggests that chutneys can offer a balance in the diet as well as act as a suitable camouflage for ingredients that are otherwise not enjoyable. The neem-leaf chutney, eaten on the morning of the Marathi new year, is a prime example. Chutneys in Maharashtra, much like their southern cousins, are made using one star ingredient, ranging from seeds (sesame, niger, flax), nuts (peanut and cashew), fresh and dried coconut, vegetable peels (bitter gourd, bottle gourd, sponge gourd), a variety of chillies and herbs (curry leaf, coriander, dill), to souring agents (amla, raw mango, tamarind and kokum), lentils of all manner, and flattened rice, among others.
The chutney corner in our house would also sometimes have a karalyachi chutney (niger-seed chutney) or javsachi chutney (flax-seed chutney) made using peanuts, garlic, and some other mildly changing ingredients such as sesame seeds or one kind of dried red chilli instead of another.
In rotation, these chutneys offered seasonal variations and provided the body with the required nutrition. A sesame-seed chutney warmed you in the cold months, a garlic chutney aided digestion in the monsoon. These are eaten with hot poli or bhakri as well as mixed into soft-cooked ambemohar rice with a drizzle of ghee or butter.
Apart from the dried chutneys, my grandmother, like most women of her generation, would make sure there was a fresh chutney on the table for every meal. It could be a simple, multipurpose coconut-coriander-green chilli chutney to accompany fresh snacks or a puckeringly sour amla chutney or a sour-sweet raw-mango one. This particular raw-mango number was a culinary inheritance from her Maharashtra-Karnataka border upbringing. Paired with a sweetness from jaggery, heat from Byadgi chillies, a slight hint of bitterness from the fenugreek seeds, this pesto-like chutney is a standard occupant of our refrigerators in season.
Most traditional Maharashtrian homes will make sure there is always a fresh chutney on the platter, at least on days when you’re eating a “full" meal.
There is, of course, the most unusual kokum chutney—a rich, purple-black gel-like chutney made using dried and rehydrated kokum, with a little jaggery for balance. Unfortunately, much like the best things in life, this one is forbidden because it is shraadh food. Like the urad daal vade and rice kheer, which are only made for shraadh in Maharashtra, this beautiful chutney is rendered rare because of its association with death and mourning.
And then there are the thechas—literally meaning “pounded". These everyday, peasant-style condiments have come to represent Maharashtrian cuisine as one that spews fire. A classic green thecha, made using raw or flame-roasted fiery green chillies, raw peanuts, garlic and salt, is the most basic of chutneys and is often the only condiment or side that a poor farmer can afford with his bhakri.
Depending on prosperity levels, fresh coriander, raw mango and other ingredients are added. Sometimes, there’s a tempering of hot oil, mustard seeds and asafoetida. The red chilli variant is called the ranzka—classic Kolhapur, this is made using the fresh, seasonal, red Byadgi chillies pounded with salt and preserved in lime juice. You decant small quantities as you need them and make a fresh tempering. I think the ranzka may have had something to do with the invention of the phrase “pleasure and pain". My grandmother’s yellowed recipe notebook also has a recipe for a chinchecha (tamarind) thecha, a very traditional chutney from the Konkan that is on the verge of entering the “forgotten" zone, using fresh tamarind and chillies but less fiery than ranzka.
Whether this obsession with chutneys came from an attitude of mindful usage and reduction of waste, or from a need to add variety to sparse vegetation, chutneys in Maharashtra are nearly an art form. A naivedya thali—a meal offered to the divine—does not carry any pickles because it is not fresh, but a chutney has a permanent place on it. Heirloom recipes for the same chutney will make them a whole new dish in another’s home—every Maharashtrian home makes a thecha, for instance. But I could add peanuts to mine and grind it very coarse while yours could be sans peanuts and quite fine. Dry chutneys, when mixed with oils, ghee or yogurt, become new dishes, more filling, and bring in nutrition in an understated way. Nuts and seeds provide essential, “good" fats such as omega-3 fatty acids, trace minerals, and B-vitamins.
Books like Ajibaichya Chutnya (Grandmother’s Chutneys) and little booklets of recipes can still be found in the darkest corners of the dying book stores that stock Marathi books. It is in these booklets that one finds recipes that go beyond the everyday green mint or packaged garlic chutney.
In my own kitchen, I make a plethora of chutneys from all over the country—plum chutney with Bengali paanch phoron, gongura pachadi from Andhra Pradesh, a spicy Gujarati-style garlic chutney. The list goes on, but I am still blindly partial to my grandmother’s chutney pudi. My mother makes a large batch for all of us now, and in some way, this humble chutney is a reassuring reminder of the circle of life and of little culinary traditions carried forward.