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 a range of chutneys that will take you thorough many seasons and circumstances. There is a kind of satisfaction and reassurance to be drawn from serried ranks of bottles on your kitchen shelves that may be relied on in every kind of situation. Their presence suggests an unspoken shoring up of reserves for days we are yet to encounter. While cooking a chutney, the immediacy of your activities is always shot through with the awareness of the future: unmapped, nebulous days that may run along with, or counter to your best laid plans; days when you will finally begin to consume the contents of the bottle that you are just planning to fill.

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 fill. 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 more elaborate creations can offer. When, on the other hand, there is very little, a chutney can transform the ordinary into something deeply pleasurable.

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. This has become less visible on our tables of late, possibly something to do with the length of time that one has to spend waiting for the limes to soften in salt and their own juices, and the increasing clamour of our lives.

Ripe, ready tomatoes behave quite differently, affording almost instant pleasure, 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 helping on your plate making a legitimate meal -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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