Gimme Red

Shristi Roy runs a taste test on laal chutney

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Illustration by Shristi Roy

Take a spoon, dip it carefully into the jar and gingerly pick out a juicy red glob full of tang and spice. Lick it, let the rich flavour swirl around your tongue, let it seep into your taste buds as the aroma of freshly ground ingredients sinks into your senses and wakes you up. Gulp!

Indian cuisine lives in shades of red. From curries to pickles to desserts, laal has touched almost every genre of dishes in the country. I’ve grown up cherishing laal doi, a distinctive sweet curd from the region of Nabadwip in West Bengal. It gets its colour from jaggery, a core ingredient in quite a few confectioneries as well as chutneys in the country. So valuable is red that it is probably the food colouring that is used most often. A 2015 research paper, ‘Eat With Your Eyes: Package Color Influences…’, mentions the psychological play we have with different colours, “The  colour  red  is often  linked  to  biologically rewarding cues and a high level  of emotional arousal… Pangborn (1960) and Maga (1974) illustrated a particular correlation between the redness of food and the perception of sweetness. They argue that such a correlation  is perceptually  rooted  in a  natural pattern of many ripening fruits turning red.” Warmer colours like red due to their long wavelengths are easy to spot. Meat, berries, fruits and spices have been domesticated by humans and recipes have evolved over the ages. In India, among others, recipes of laal (red) chutneys have reached almost every nook and corner of the country.

Chutney shares a place with achaar and papad on the peripheries of an Indian meal. However, it is also often used as a synonym for the word sauce, especially in the west. While the idea of a chutney may touch certain bases with that of a sauce, it is not limited to it. Grinding is vital to the process of making chutneys be it into a paste or a powder — unlike sauce, which is essentially a liquid. The core ingredients for a chutney could range from fruits to vegetables to flowers and leaves, often paired with a souring agent, like lemon, to halt the process of fermentation. Sometimes, when the chutney is intended to be stored in a bottle for a longer period, it follows the achaar’s path and uses oil as a natural airtight seal cutting off fermentation.

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Photograph by Shristi Roy

For a considerable amount of time, I couldn’t imagine lunch without my grandpa’s homemade ‘tometor poda chaatni’ which is a chutney made with roasted tomatoes. If he didn’t fancy the food being cooked at home, this chutney would make it all up for him.

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Chutneys are a small but strong element of an Indian thali. A typical thali is a balanced assortment of different dishes and condiments cooked and laid out in katoris. While each katori has an individual element, the meal isn’t ready until their amalgamation on the thali. “During the preparation of food, it is not touched or tasted by anyone else, so in a way, the final act of preparation is left to the eater, who mixes the rice or bread with the food and condiments to his or her liking,” Collen Taylor Sen writes in his book Feasts and Fasts. Achaar and chutneys, the condiment allies, are used in deliberate quantities to balance one’s palate.

“You’re supposed to use all your four fingers to lick the chaatni. That’s how you appreciate its taste”, says Uma Pal, my grandma. Hailing from Chattisgarh, she has her origins in Bengal. A typical Bengali Sunday meal is incomplete without a ‘mishti laal chaatni’ (mishti stands for sweet, and the ‘chaat’ in chaatni refers to the Bengali word meaning “to lick”). To make this, we need to cook tomatoes again, this time in a deep vessel along with dates, raisins, panch phoron (a blend of 5 whole spices used extensively in the eastern regions of the country), a little oil and sugar or jaggery. It is served at the end of the meal and is a semi-liquid chutney that steps in deliciously to balance the spicy burns coming from a katori full of red mutton curry and rice.

This sweet version of the laal chutney strays away from its taste tribe. “…Almost all our red chutney that we eat today is red because of chillies. These are dried red chillies that we’re using, which inherently impart this colour red…”, says Kurush Dalal,  archaeologist, historian and culinary anthropologist. Chillies, which seem to be the prime ingredient in most laal chutneys, only arrived in the country around the late 15th century with the Portuguese. Their history in Indian cuisine is said to be a very short and recent one. The typical hot and spicy laal chutney is therefore something rather new. “The chilli was avidly received in India. It could be grown all over the country, unlike pepper, and even in every backyard…” K.T Achaya, an oil chemist, food scientist, nutritionist and food historian mentions in his book Indian Food Tradition (Pg. 228).

Dnyaneshwari Burghate, 23, is a classmate who hails from the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra. She shares that the regional varhadi cuisine in Vidarbha is so hot that people carry handkerchiefs before consuming varhadi mutton because they know the spicy food will get them all running noses. While some dishes are meant to be less spicy like a besan-ki-sabzi, their ground laal chutney made of red chillies, garlic and peanut can fulfil the lack of hotness. Thecha, another spicy laal chutney from Maharashtra is a dry exception. It is paired with oil before consuming or used as a seasoning over curries and other dishes while cooking.

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Photograph by Shristi Roy

But of course, chilli isn’t the sole red-pigmented product of nature. As diverse as the geographical conditions of the country are, the availability of ingredients is proportionally diverse as well. The easier and cheaper presence of salt than sugar in the markets of India for the majority of history led to these chutneys being salty and spicy more than sweet. Mr Dalal gives an insight, “…we know the railways changed the easy transit of vegetables that would otherwise get destroyed. So yes, availability plays a huge role”. So while red remains common to these chutneys, its sources can have their regional and cultural accents.

Geetha Prakashan has her roots in the state of Kerala. A region known widely for its use of coconut in its cuisine, it has its own version of laal chutney.

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In Vizag, Andhra Pradesh, Mrs Prabhavati Burla makes one of her red chutneys with  onions and another with carrots. For the onion laal chutney, she takes onion, tamarind, green chili, jeera (cumin) and a pinch of dhaniya (coriander) powder or leaves and grinds them raw into a thick paste.

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One might wonder, considering they are so widely consumed, what health benefits do chutneys have? Mr Dalal laughs at the question and says, “none really”. He elaborates, “…the main constituent of your food is carbohydrates… So everything that is eaten with your main carbohydrate is essentially something to make your carbohydrate go down more easily.” However, food being food, everything we decide to swallow has an impact on our bodies. Essentially chutneys are just nature crushed into a bowl and are therefore bound to contain certain nutrient values to them. ‘Traditional Food Recipes from Ayush Systems of Medicine’ by the Ministry of Ayush mentions, “…Chutney acts as an appetiser and (is) also good for digestion. It aids availability of micronutrients from its ingredients. Chutney has multiple health benefits based on the ingredients used in it.” (Pg. 36)

Healthy or not, red or not, I really cannot imagine a world without chutneys. That world may still exist, but it would be in a bland and colourless ignorance. Wherever you are, chutneys really aren’t that far. Find one in a supermarket lane or make one in a mixer grinder yourself. Put together your favourite ingredients, experiment with the taste, feel like a god. And if you’re feeling enthusiastic enough, find a traditional stone mortar and pestle or the grinding stones (locally called ‘sil batta’) and enjoy a complimentary workout too! 

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Illustration by Shristi Roy