Every superhero needs a sidekick, just like Batman needs Robin. And the food universe is no exception. Imagine this: you’re ravenous, awaiting your turn at a street food stall where pakoras bubble in oil and chubby pavs soak up butter to become dabelis. Just as the vendor hands you the samosas you’ve been eyeing beadily, he says he’s run out of the green and tamarind-jaggery chutneys that make a samosa, samosa. The horror!
Gujarat has the sambharo, Goa its horvem, and Tamil Nadu molagai podi—the relishes, sauces, and chutneys eaten across India aren’t mere accompaniments to dishes; they’re often the stars that bring the chutzpah, elevating everyday meals with flavour and texture. “There is no ingredient that cannot find a place in chutney. It’s a zero-waste dish by itself,” says Chef Velton Saldanha, founder of Chutney Collective, a Mumbai-based startup that bottles regional variations of the condiment. “On my summer trips to visit my grandmother in Mangalore, I noticed that even the skin of the palm fruit was used in cooking,” he remembers. Field workers would often eat the pulp for lunch, and save the peel for breakfast the next morning, which was then ground to a make a spicy chutney and savoured with dosa.
Saldanha picks his 10 favourite chutneys, made from mild flowers, seafood, fiery red ants, and a host of other ingredients.
Clockwise from top left: Sambharo from Gujarat, karuvadu takaali from Puducherry; yetti chutney from Karnataka; Molagai Podi from Tamil Nadu are representative of the country’s regional culinary diversity. Photos by: Rithwick Pravin/Shutterstock (Lady); Coolpixgirl/Shutterstock (Molagai podi); Pablo.garcia/Shutterstock (Prawns); Rainbow_dazzle/Shutterstock (Sambharo)
Karuvadu takaali is what you get if thokku (tomato pickle) and sambal (chilli paste) had a love child. While it comes as no surprise that Puducherry’s coastal belt has influences of Tamilian, Portuguese and French cuisines, the dry-fish-and-tomato chutney is proof that Vietnamese flavours also influenced its culinary tradition. (Both Pondicherry and Vietnam were French colonies in the 19th century). Karuvadu Takaali originally used (Vietnamese) fish sauce, but a relatively modern version replaces it with dry fish. Onion, garlic, green chillies, curry leaves and tamarind are generously added to enhance the hot-and-sour flavour. Another variation involves adding whole boiled eggs to the dish before serving it with steamed rice.
In Tamil, molaga or molagai translates to chillies, and podi to powder. First dry red chillies, curry leaves, and lentil mixture are roasted and pounded finely, and mixed with coconut oil or ghee. The paste is often served with idli, dosa, and even rice. The recipe is adapted to suit home kitchens across the south, give or take an ingredient or two. Andhra Pradesh’s pappula podi uses garlic and chickpea, while Karnataka’s pudi includes desiccated coconut and peanut.
The marquee ingredient of this Mangalore-based chutney is yetti (prawn, in Tulu), which is coarsely ground with desiccated coconut (shrimp is used just as widely). Tamarind, ginger, chillies and carom seeds lend this recipe a blend of hot and tangy flavours that pair well with a bowl of ghee-drenched ganji (red rice gruel). “Traditionally, the dry version is made in the monsoon, when the boats are anchored at the shores and the seas are too hostile for fishing. But if stored well, the shrimp can be used any time of the year,” says Saldanha. Your best bet to find the finest crustacean, both sunbaked and fresh, would be at a local seafood market in the southern coastal town.
Slather prawns with Horvem from Goa (top) for a tangy twist; You can’t miss the pungent smell of Akhuni (bottom) being cooked in a Naga kitchen. Photos by: AmongImsong/Shutterstock (Akhuni); leshiy985/Shutterstock (Goan sausages)
For every savoury dish in Gujarat there is a well-paired dip. Sample sambharo—a raw papaya stir-fry seasoned with green chillies, salt, turmeric, cumin and mustard seeds. The state’s many street food markets serve the sapid, crunchy chutney that is commonly matched with breakfast spreads such as khaman dhokla, fafda, samosa and kachori. Given its slaw-like texture, Saldanha believes sambharo would fit right in with the sabzis and roti in a traditional thaali, much like the Tamilian poriyal.
Thecha was born out of necessity in rural Maharashtra, where farmers still pack a modest lunch of bhakri, raw onion, and green chillies coarsely pounded with salt. Thecha is a common addition to many home-cooked meals, and no variation can go too wrong—a popular version mixes green chillies crushed in a mortar-and-pestle, roasted peanuts and garlic. Saldanha’s addition of fried chicken—inspired by fried chicken and hot sauce combos that he sampled on his trip to Chicago—puts a western spin on the traditional recipe. Scoop it up with bhakri hot off the stove, slather it on top of pizzas or in between burger buns.
The piquant red ant chutney has remained a steady staple in specific pockets of the Eastern belt of the country long before it popped on the global gastronomic radar, thanks to Gordon Ramsay’s brief stint in Chhattisgarh while shooting his 2010-documentary Gordon’s Great Escape. The orange pulp, made with red ants and their eggs, is popular among the tribes of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, where it is called chapra (“leaf basket”) as a nod to the peculiar-shaped nests the ants weave from the sal tree. Additional ingredients such as tomatoes, coriander, garlic, ginger, chilli, salt, and sugar are crushed into the star ingredient using mortar and pestle to create a smooth paste. Sometimes, the locals might cook the paste with oil and chopped onions for a fiery zing. Chapra is equally cherished for the high levels of formic acid imparted by the ants, and is locally used to treat the common flu and other ailments.
Local markets are your best best to score freshly ground spices that go into making most chutneys. Photo By: Pikoso.kz/Shutterstock
Between January and March, many landscapes of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand don a scarlet veil: the rhododendron is in bloom. The bright, bell-shaped flowers, known as burans, are consumed by adding them to pakora batter, sherbet and even local wine. But the burans chutney—eaten to prevent sickness caused by seasonal changes—takes the cake. The raspberry-tinted paste is made by grinding together rhododendron petals with soaked tamarind, green or red chillies, and garlic. Hot parathas or rice with burans taste like basking in the sun on a winter’s day.
This relish made from fermented mustard seeds is versatile enough to be paired with a multitude of dishes such as bhajiya, macher chop and vegetable cutlet, and can also be used as a spice paste for traditional Bengali preparations like kasundi maach, kasundi murgi, and kasundi channa. The goodness of tomato, garlic, mustard seeds, cayenne pepper and white vinegar come together to form a sauce whose pungency is often compared to that of wasabi. Albeit a winter relish, it can be devoured as a summer treat by adding mangos to the mix.
The chapra chutney (top left), a piquant red ant chutney has remained a staple in certain sections of the Eastern belt of the country; The spicy thecha (top right) was born out of necessity in rural Maharashtra; Kasundi to chops and cutlets is what butter is to bread (bottom left); Rhododendrons (bottom right) are in bloom in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh between January and March. Photos by: RealityImages/Shutterstock (Thecha), PradeepGaurs/Shutterstock (Red ant chutney), Yaman2407/Shutterstock (Rhododendron) APStock/Shutterstock (Bhajiya)
You don’t need a bloodhound’s instinct to know when akhuni or axone (meaning “strong smell” in the ethnic Sumi dialect) is being rustled up in a Naga kitchen. The fermented soybean paste has a distinct, sharp whiff and a smoky, bitter aftertaste that must be acquired to be loved. The lentil—cultivated in the monsoon at altitudes of about 4,900-feet—is first boiled, drained in bamboo baskets, stored in a shelf above a fireplace, then semi-mashed and placed in banana leaf packets to be either sold immediately in local markets or preserved for a few weeks. During this period its colour deepens with each passing day. Akhuni can be consumed with a main course or used in preparation of a traditional local delicacy such as smoked pork.
Horvem is what you turn to when you have to plate up a last-minute quick fix, delicious nonetheless. Tamarind, jaggery, grated coconut, turmeric, red chillies and a few other spices are blended to a fine paste to supplement Goan chorizo and rice. However, it is objectionable to skip seafood when in the coastal state. So slather prawns with the tangy marinade—locally also known as haadaen or miriyam—and stir fry before serving.
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is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.
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