Most people think that chutneys or chatnis or pickles or achars are just fillers, or condiments, that have no serious role to play in an Indian meal.
Well, you will be surprised to know that an Indian meal is not complete unless accompanied by either a chatni or an achar. So, what are they?
Before we try to understand them however, as always, here is a little background story to set the scene.
Whilst I was growing up in Hyderabad in the early 60s, whenever the May school holidays came around we went to Nagpur in Maharashtra every year.
This annual trip became a ritual because it was where my grandfather, my mother’s maternal uncle, lived and it was where I spent my summer holidays every single year from 1961 to 1979.
Grandfather was a “registered accountant”, sort of like a “chartered accountant”, just a little different, as I guess he couldn’t afford to pay his fees for the ‘superior’ course to become a fully-fledged chartered accountant. Something called ‘poverty’ had hit him before he was able to make the next ‘grade’.
But this did not stop him from being the best, and the most respected, accountant in his field.
Accountants all over the world are the ones who can either make you look ‘good’ as a business or very ‘ordinary’!
Grandfather treated all his clients the same; it didn’t matter whether you had a small kirana store or a chain of medical clinics, you were not his friend!! His job was to tell you how much you owed the taxman and that was it. Nothing would change as far as the figures were concerned.
But if, for some god for…en reason, you got into trouble he was there to fight your cause and, I am told, ajoba, or grandfather, never lost a single case!!
This was the professional side of ajoba.
When he lost his youngest sister to tuberculosis in the early 1920s, ajoba decided to become my mother’s ‘dad’ as her own father was a ‘guard’ on the Indian Railways, then under British rule, and he was not granted leave on compassionate grounds.
So, my mother’s father had to stay working on the railways, leaving his 6-month-old baby in the care of my ajoba.
Ajoba was more than a father to my mother. He was both mother and father, though mind you he also had his own daughter, who was six months older than my mum, to take care of and what a bl..y good job he did with her too. He sent her to a private school, and then on to the best college in Nagpur at that time so she could get the best possible education. This is the caring, paternal side of my ajoba.
The other side is more colorful and full of tang.
Once I reached Nagpur in the first week of May every year I was in the good care of ajoba.
I would eat, drink, walk and drive everywhere with my grandfather!
Life was great fun. I would also go vegetable shopping with him (this was something that as a young boy I did’t really enjoy, but I never told him, oh no!, for he was, after all, my ajoba).
So, with my reluctance well hidden, every Monday we would go vegetable shopping. Well, we all knew he was good with numbers, but the ol’ man was also extremely good at buying and selecting veggies, particularly mangoes and herbs.
In May the mangoes and herbs were at their ‘organic’ best but ajoba still insisted on hand-picking them himself.
Raw, or green, mangoes had to not just look firm but they also had to have a certain aroma that told him if they were right for making pickles.
He had this fascination for pickles and chatnis and said that no meal was ever complete unless it was accompanied with a good achar or chatni.
So ajoba and his little assistant, yours truly, would hand pick each and every green mango, bunch of mint or coriander, to make sure that we got what we wanted.
For my ajoba this was the first step in getting a good pickle or chatni on the table.
As we meandered our way past rows of mangoes and herbs he would say to me, “Son, if the foundation is good the product will rarely go wrong!!”. All of this detail, and smelling, and time, I would think, just for a pickle or a chatni!!
After reaching home it was my job to separate all the veggies into herbs, root veggies, and all the rest, something I follow to this day!
The green mangoes would get wiped (and don’t think this was a job done quickly, we are, after all, talking about 150 kgs of the things), dried and cut along the middle to expose the stone.
If the stone was not fully formed it was used for making something called moramba or murabba, made with the addition of jaggery and spices. The rest of the world calls it chutney!
The green mangoes would then get treated with a mixture that included black mustard seeds, fenugreek with asafoetida and salt along with sesame oil (for a southern style uurga or pickle), or with black mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, kalonji seeds (a.k.a nigella seeds) and smoked mustard oil (for a northern style achar or pickle).
Whatever the style, according to my grandfather, a good pickle is never cooked in brine or vinegar but it is allowed to pickle over a period of time in the hot sun till the mangoes break down!!
Now we’re talking real pickles!
Back in the busy kitchen in my grandfather’s house the women folk would then remove the leaves of the fresh coriander and mint to be stone ground with raw mango and green chillies and salt to form a fine paste called chatni.
As I write this, I can’t help but salivate thinking of this green pesto, which would be served to all guests as a part of the thali, to be eaten with a chappati along with sesame oil, a.k.a gingelly oil!
So, to sum it all up my friends, chatni is fresh, it is never cooked!
It is derived from the sanskrit word chat, meaning to lick, and that is exactly what it does, unlike some bottled stuff that you get from the supermarket called ‘chutney’ which is cooked and over loaded with sugar and salt.
And now, of course, a small advertisement is about to appear on our screens, you know, the time when we usually go and make ourselves a cup of tea?
(I must make an exception to the sort of cooked chutney being overloaded with sugar and salt. The date and tamarind chutney that we make at nilgiri’s uses jaggery, tamarind, spices and ‘black salt’ which is far healthier than any old sugars or food additives!!)
As for the pickle, it is never cooked if the fruit has a natural acid in it like mangoes or limes or lemons, or even gooseberries, and is preserved with the addition of pickling spices – such as fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, nigella seeds and black mustard seeds – along with salt, chilli powder and oil (mustard or gingelly).
The pickled veggies sold in the supermarket would make my grandfather turn in his grave!!
Ajoba was born on Deepavali day and would have been 115-years-old today!!
Anah daata sukhi bhava!!