The Comfort of a Chutney

by Kaveri Ponnapa

Generally speaking, a cooked chutney is far less complicated and time consuming to make than most traditional Indian pickles. Although Jane Grigson does mention that “they are very difficult to make really well because of the balance and variation in quantities”, and then adds, “I imagine this is why certain recipes are treasured in families and shared only with close friends”. Women in Coorg, though, appear to have mastered the art of making chutneys that will take you thorough many seasons and circumstances.

For a morning’s washing, slicing, chopping and slow-cooking, you can enjoy extended moments of pleasure at the table, moments that might recur over weeks or months, depending on how many bottles you happen to have filled.

On a table loaded with big dishes of this and that, a small bowl of chutney sparkles with a promise to bring a brightness and focus to your meal that none of the big dishes can offer. When, on the other hand, there is very little, a chutney can make the ordinary quite wonderful.

The firm native limes of Coorg, after a long, contemplative soak in brine become pale, soft and pliant. The challenge of their sour skins has been mellowed by salt, and they can be ground -unresistingly-smooth or slightly chunky, as you wish, and cooked into a chutney that awakens your senses with the first whiff of its piercingly clear, slightly dangerous perfume. It is best eaten in very small helpings to savour every bit of its distracting intensity, which stirs something inexplicable in you.

Ripe, ready tomatoes behave quite differently, ending up in a voluptuous tangle of pulp and spice, turning a glossy, brazen red that can be eaten in generous scoops without much concern, the last traces on your plate scraped off with your fingertips.

A helping of chutney brings substance and legitimacy to a frugal meal. When the appetite is overwhelmed by grief, loss, illness, boredom, or just the desire to be alone, one can resort to rice, curd and a helping of the appropriate chutney. The flavours bring an indescribable clarity to your particular state of mind. It is also an acknowledged, timeless classic, a sharp answer to those too-probing questions of the ‘what-did-you-eat-for-lunch’ variety, aimed at finding out if you were indeed so lonely or bereft that you had dined off leftovers. The presence of a chutney brings comfort in more ways than one.

All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
Photo Credits: A.G.P Sathyaprakash

Do look out for the recipes of all the food featured here in my upcoming cookbook.

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