Making The Case For Chutney

About The Author

An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book, Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster), will be released this month. Read more at her blog, A Life Of Spice.

In my mother's Indian household, chutneys were present at every meal. My mother was usually responsible for the main dishes, and my father and I for the accompaniments. We loved to experiment with herbs, spices and flavors for the chutneys — it was a perfect way to accent and redefine familiar dishes. My father often claimed that he had finally perfected the mint chutney after years of trials. Yet each time he served it, he added one more thing to it to make it "just right."

Chutneys enable you to bring the fresh flavors of summer, the earthy flavors of fall, the deep flavors of winter and the sweetness of spring into your kitchen in simple ways. In India, they are traditionally served at all times of the day. They can be served as accompaniments, spreads, salad dressings, toppings for grilled meats and even as stuffing for a rolled meat or fish preparation. Chutneys use fruits, beans, vegetables, herbs and spices, and can be served raw or cooked, chunky or smooth, sweet or tart, mild or spicy.

"In a traditional Indian meal, chutney finds an important place to be served along with salt and pickle," celebrity chef and Indian cookbook author Sanjeev Kapoor says from his office in Mumbai. He adds that chatni (the Indian word for chutney) seems to have originated in India around the 15th and 16th centuries. In the same period, South Africans were making blatjans, East Indians were making atjar and Indonesians, sambals — all chutneylike condiments.

There are three primary types of chutneys: raw, cooked and dried. Raw chutneys are generally created with herbs (such as cilantro or mint) and fruits (such as coconut or berries), and have bright, refreshing flavors. They are made fresh daily in traditional Indian households and have a shelf life of only two to three days. Customarily, they were prepared on a sil batta — a large rock slab with a cylindrical rock pestle — and hand-blended to a pestolike consistency. Blenders, however, are used in modern Indian households. A fresh mint-cilantro chutney, for example, is just right for enlivening a simple summer dish such as grilled chicken.

Cooked chutneys prepared with large quantities of sugar or vinegar tend to last a lot longer, so they make good travel companions. Cooked chutneys are made with ingredients such as tomatoes, mangoes, plums, apples and ginger. They have deeper flavors than raw chutneys and are used as toppings for grilled meats, vegetables and breads. A tomatillo chutney is bold in flavor and adds a real punch when served with a mild cheesecake.

Dried chutneys are used as a spiced garnish. A common one is made with garlic, peanuts and red chiles roasted and powdered, then sprinkled on simply steamed basmati rice. These generally last a week in the refrigerator.

The depth and breadth of flavors provided by chutneys is only limited by imagination. There is no right or wrong combination; your palate is the judge. You may find you want them on your table for every meal, too.

Savory Mini Cheesecakes With Red Pepper And Green Tomatillo Chutney

Savory Mini Cheesecakes With Red Pepper And Green Tomatillo Chutney i
Monica Bhide for NPR
Savory Mini Cheesecakes With Red Pepper And Green Tomatillo Chutney
Monica Bhide for NPR

Plain savory cheesecakes provide a great base for showing off spicy chutneys. I use this one, but truly you can use any chutney for this dish. This dish is always a smash hit at parties and is supereasy to make. Recipes are from Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster, April 2009).

Makes 30 pieces

Nonstick cooking spray

30 mini phyllo shells

One 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened

1 medium egg

5 tablespoons sour cream

3 tablespoons red pepper and green tomatillo chutney (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Arrange the shells on the sheet.

Whisk together the cream cheese, egg and sour cream until well combined.

Place 2 teaspoons of the mixture into each shell. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the filling is firm and set.

Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature.

Top each cheesecake with about 1/4 teaspoon of the chutney and serve.

Red Pepper And Green Tomatillo Chutney

Be careful when using fenugreek seeds. They add bitterness to a dish, so a little goes a long way. Also, they are not substitutes for fresh fenugreek or dried fenugreek leaves; the flavors and textures are miles apart.

Makes 1 generous cup

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

5 or 6 fresh curry leaves*

Pinch of asafetida*

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds*

1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds*

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon onion seeds*

1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds*

4 whole dried red chilis

2 cups diced green tomatillos (10 to 12 medium tomatillos)

1 cup seeded and diced red bell pepper (1 medium pepper)

2 teaspoons grated, peeled fresh ginger

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup white vinegar or fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon table salt

In a medium skillet, heat the vegetable oil. When the oil begins to simmer, add the curry leaves, asafetida, cumin, fenugreek, fennel, onion and mustard seeds. As soon as the seeds begin to sizzle, about 1 minute, add the chilis, tomatillos, bell pepper, ginger and sugar. Mix well.

Add the water and vinegar and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue on a gentle simmer for about 35 minutes, until the tomatillos and bell pepper are soft and the liquid is syrupy.

Add the salt. Mix well.

Remove from heat. Remove the whole chilis, if you like. Transfer to a container and cool.

Cover and refrigerate until needed.

*Available at an Indian grocery or online at www.indianfoodsco.com

Green Chutney Chicken

Green Chutney Chicken i
Photos by Monica Bhide for NPR
Green Chutney Chicken
Photos by Monica Bhide for NPR

These recipes fromModern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster, April 2009) are inspired by a green chili chicken that the chefs at the Bombay Club in Washington, D.C., prepare. The basic mint-cilantro chutney is supplemented with the flavor of bell peppers. The trick is to brown the chicken well, and then, only when the chicken is completely cooked, add the aromatic herbal chutney. Don't overcook it, or the sauce will lose its bright green color and turn a nasty brown. I like to serve this with basmati rice.

Makes 4 servings

1 cup Mint-Cilantro Chutney (recipe follows)

1 green bell pepper, seeded and roughly chopped

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon store-bought ginger-garlic paste*

1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken, cut into 1-inch dice

Salt to taste

Green serrano chilis, slit and seeded, for garnish

Put the chutney, bell pepper and water into a blender, and process until smooth. Set aside.

In a nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. When it begins to simmer, add the ginger-garlic paste and saute for about 1 minute.

Add the chicken and cook over medium-high heat for 12 to 15 minutes, until well-browned and cooked through.

Add the chutney mixture and salt to taste. Bring to a gentle simmer and immediately remove from heat.

Garnish with the green chilis and serve immediately.

*Available at an Indian grocery or online at www.indianfoodsco.com

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