Chutneys can make even the most uninteresting food taste good.

ACCORDING to The Food Lover’s Companion, chutney comes from the East Indian word chatni. It usually contains fruit and vegetables and is cooked in vinegar or another souring agent like lemon or tamarind juice, and sugar, both of which function as the preservative. Spices are also often added.

Chutneys can be chunky or smooth, and also have an element of heat. They make a delicious accompaniment to curried dishes. In the West, sweeter chutneys are often used as a spread or eaten with cheese.

For the love of chaat

I have only ever made date and turmeric chutney, and only because I couldn’t find it in the shops. And I made the chutney because it’s an essential ingredient in chaat, a snack I learnt to make at a family gathering a long time ago. Chaat is an Indian snack made of chickpeas, boiled potatoes, onions, yoghurt, muruku chips, masala, coriander and chutneys. It’s what the aunts whip up for their weekly card sessions, and so they made it too during that family holiday in Perth when they “cheated” us out of our coins.

I had a massive craving for chaat during my post-holiday blues, and quickly sent out an e-mail for the recipe. The recipe came with no measurements of course, but the instructions were detailed. To make chaat, you just need to layer chickpeas, boiled diced potatoes, muruku chips, diced onions, yoghurt, masala, coriander and chutneys. It’s a good dish to bring for potluck parties too.

The date and tamarind chutney is also good with samosas and curry puffs, and it’s especially good served alongside coriander chutney. – IVY SOON

Date and tamarind chutney is a must in chaat.

Date And Tamarind Chutney
Makes 1 jar

1 cup seedless dates
½ cup seedless tamarind, or to taste
¼ cup palm sugar, or to taste
1 tbsp tomato ketchup (optional)
½ tsp chilli powder
salt, to taste

Soak the dates in enough water to just cover them for a few hours, or till they are soft. Soak the tamarind in ½ cup hot water, and then extract its juice.

Blend the dates with the water they were soaked in with the palm sugar, tomato ketchup, chilli powder and half the tamarind juice.

Taste and add salt. It should be sweet and sour.

Slowly add the tamarind juice, tasting as you go till you get the balance of sweet and sour that you like.

Strain and keep in a jar. Keep refrigerated.

Nuts about chutneys

I am not a big fan of sweet fruit chutneys. My kind of chutneys are thick, creamy, savoury and made fresh for immediate consumption, to accompany dishes like thosai, idli and vadai. Robust in flavour, they add a zing to any dish and often open up the senses, heightening the enjoyment of even the simplest of meals.

Although meant to be a condiment, I break all the rules of how a chutney is meant to be consumed. When eating thosai, for example, instead of dipping the Indian crepe in chutney (common chutneys to accompany thosai are coconut, mint and/or tomato), I scoop up large amounts of it with just a tiny piece of the thosai.

Yes, I like my chutney with thosai and not the other way around. The rich, complex flavours from the blended spices, herbs, nuts and lentils (common ingredients in savoury chutneys) are just so tasty that one dollop just won’t do. I may find it hard to finish a thosai, but I always ask for three or four servings of chutney, much to the amusement of the servers at my neighbourhood banana leaf restaurant.

Chutneys can be easily prepared at home – with my blender (a mortar and pestle could work, though the effort is five-fold) and skillet, I discovered I could try the many different varieties of chutney from the many different regions of India. There is even a chutney made from banana peel! My all-time favourites are still mint chutney (perfect for thosai and idli), followed closely by the tomato and onion chutney. But my latest favourite is peanut chutney made from ground roasted peanuts and an assortment of spices. I’ve now used this as a base for other chutneys – coriander peanut chutney, for example, which tastes uncannily like pesto! Amazing. – S. INDRAMALAR

Savoury chutneys are an accompaniment to many Indian meals.

Peanut Chutney
Makes one jar

2 tsp oil
1 cup unsalted peanuts, skinned
1 cup roasted chana dal/split peas
20 curry leaves
1 tbsp sesame seeds
2 green chillies
1cm ginger, chopped
½ tsp asafoetida
½ lemon
salt to taste
water (as required depending on how thick you want your chutney)

Heat the oil in a skillet on medium heat. Add the peanuts and cook till they start to brown. Lower heat and add the curry leaves and the split peas and sesame seeds. Cook till the leaves crisp, but don’t let them burn as this will make your chutney bitter. Turn the heat off and allow the peanut mix to cool. Blend the peanut mix along with the chillies, ginger and asafoetida until it becomes a paste and then add water (to the consistency that you are happy with) and salt as required. Squeeze 1-2 teaspoons of lemon or lime juice and pulse a couple more times to mix the seasoning into the chutney. Serve. The chutney can be kept, refrigerated, for up to a week.

Super hot sidekick

Chutneys are a good sidekick to many kinds of foods. When I have some along with my rice and curry, my meal seems more complete.

I have at least two kinds of chutneys in the fridge at all times – some are homemade, others come from the store. I want to say that I eat them with everything, but I have to admit that I sometimes forget they’re there even though the jars are at eye level on the top shelf of my fridge. Luckily, they keep well.

My standard formula for chutneys is equal parts sugar and vinegar by volume. But if the main component – the fruit or vegetable – is very sweet, I would use less sugar, and if the vinegar is acidic (white wine vinegar, for example, as opposed to rice vinegar), then I would increase the sugar.

I don’t make big batches of chutney, so the cooking time normally doesn’t extend beyond an hour and a half. But if I don’t want to constantly stir the pot, I will use a crockpot, as I’ve done here.

I learnt about cooking with watermelon rind recently and have used it in this chutney. It’s a “fruit” that doesn’t really taste of anything and will absorb flavours from the liquid. I’ve kept it simple, however, using some superhot chillies my sister brought back from Laos, which provides a kick.

One of the ways I like to have chutney is in a grilled cheese sandwich. There’s the sweet-sour taste and heat from the chillies, and saltiness of the cheese. Add a few shakes of Worcestershire sauce and I get the the umami flavour too. Perfect. – JANE F. RAGAVAN

Watermelon rind chutney served as a hotdog topping.

Crockpot Watermelon Rind Chutney
Makes about 2 cups

600g watermelon
½ cup rice vinegar
½ cup white sugar
⅓ cup water
1 tbsp minced peeled fresh ginger
10 whole black peppercorns
2 bird’s eye chillies, split in half but keep stems intact
½ tsp coarse salt

Cut the flesh from the watermelon; keep for another use. Cut away and discard outer green skin from the rind. Cut rind into 1cm cubes – there will be about 3 cups.

Place all the ingredients in a slow cooker/crockpot and cook until rind is translucent and tender and liquid is syrupy. Depending on the type of crockpot, this will take between three and five hours. Cool and store in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.