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Making The Case For Chutney

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.

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Monica Bhide