Zestful Chutneys

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5251d6f3eb9cbea2286b7e0a17f72879-2 (1)A complete Indian meal has four elements: a bread and/or rice, a vegetable dish, a dal (lentil-based dish), and a chutney. If you are in a hurry, the simplest meal might be just some rice or bread and a chutney, but no Indian meal would be served without a chutney.

A typical day for a homemaker in a vegetarian family might start with shopping for the produce, preparing ingredients for the meal, and making fresh chutney. Dry goods come from a stocked pantry, but the menu usually revolves around the fresh vegetables available that day.

Chutneys enhance the taste and stimulate appetite. In this sense, a chuntey is similar in concept to a Western condiment such as relish, sauce, or salsa, which is served not as a side dish but as a garnish and in small quantities. In fact, chutney comes from the Hindi word “chatni,” meaning “for licking,” as in adding flavor to a dish and making it finger-licking good.

Sometimes a particular chutney is essential for a dish, as mint chutney with samosas. Or the type and texture of a chutney is chosen based on available ingredients.

There are two different types of condiments commonly used in Indian cuisine. One is the simple fresh chutney that is made for daily use, and the other is a more complex preserved condiment or pickle, called achar in Hindi.

Achar, or pickle, is made with seasonal ingredients. For example, when sour green mangoes are at their peak, women might organize small work parties, and invite expert grandmothers and aunts to help. They work for days at the painstaking, complicated procedures for preparing pickles. Fortunately for us, some of these expert women are employed at Gandhi Shops in India, one of the cottage industries started by the Mahatma.

Imported pickles from India are now readily available in the West at specialty stores. Packed in jars, they can be kept for months in a pantry and after opening they will keep in the refrigerator for a long time. Fresh chutneys, however, are usually meant to be consumed within a few days or a week.


Unlike many salty, oily, or sweetened pickles, fresh chutneys are prepared primarily with digestive spices such as ginger, lime, or lemon. The texture as well as the intensity of a chutney varies depending on the entrée with which it will be served. A chutney can be sweet-and-sour for a spicy main dish, or extremely hot with a lot of cayenne or chili, to be paired with a mild dish. A chutney can be jam-like, to be spread over a vegetable cutlet, or thin to be used as a dipping sauce for deep-fried patties.
Many traditional Indian cooks still use a stone mortar-and-pestle to make fresh chutneys, but they can be made more quickly with a blender or food processor. If you make them the traditional way, mortars and pestles, and grinding stones are available in Indian and Hispanic grocery stores.

In some chutney recipes, the main ingredients are cooked briefly before grinding, but most fresh chutneys are almost always cooled before serving. Caution: when making chutneys in an electric blender or a food processor, always allow the ingredients to settle for a few minutes before you open the lid; the air inside the jar becomes filled with hot essence that can irritate tender skin.

A prepared bowl of chutney is often placed in the center of the dining table to be passed around so that each person can take a little bit of it on her or his plate. Here are some examples of fresh chutneys.


1 cup raw cashews
½ cup fresh cilantro, twigs removed
1 tablespoon fresh chopped ginger
2 fresh hot chilies, seeds and veins removed
½ cup water combined with 2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt

Place all the ingredients in a jar of a blender or food processor. Blend until they are pureed, but still retain some texture so that the chutney has the consistency of crunchy peanut butter. Let it stand for a few minutes in the jar before serving. This chutney is substantial enough to make a tasty sandwich filling. Thinned with water, it can be a dipping sauce for an appetizer.

Variations: (1) Use raw peanuts or pine nuts in place of cashews. (2) Use ½ cup yogurt or soy yogurt in place of water and lemon juice to make a creamier chutney.


This chutney is guaranteed to keep away many undesirable things, including the common cold and vampires. Green garlic has a stronger aroma than dry garlic, but it is less spicy. Also known as spring garlic, green garlic has a short season, so watch for it in the markets and take advantage of it while it lasts. You can make a variation of this recipe using regular garlic when green garlic is unavailable.

8 to 10 sprigs of green garlic, trimmed and chopped, including most of the green leaves
1 bunch of fresh cilantro or parsley, stems removed and leaves chopped
2 fresh hot chilies, seeds and veins removed
½ teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon salt
juice of 1 lime
¼ cup water

Place all of the ingredients in a jar of a blender or a food processor. Blend to a pesto-like consistency. Let it sit for a few minutes in the jar. Serve in small portions as a condiment with crackers, chapatis, or a vegetable dish, or use a tablespoon to flavor a dal or soup.

Variation using regular garlic: Use 12 to 15 cloves of garlic instead of green garlic and a bit more water to achieve the desired consistency.


with fresh citrus juices
½ cup pitted, chopped dates
½ cup monukka or flame raisins
½ cup warm water
1 tablespoon each freshly squeezed lemon juice, orange juice, and grapefruit juice
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon each ground cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom
more water as needed

Soak the dates and raisins in warm water for ½ hour. Then combine all ingredients in the jar of a blender or food processor and blend to a jam-like consistency. Add a few more teaspoons of water if needed. This chutney can be used as a spread on toast or as a condiment for an entrée.

Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine, lives in San Francisco, where she is a manager of Other Avenues, a health-food store. Her daughter Serena Sacharoff is an illustrator and art student.

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