Homemade chutney is nostalgia in a jar. Cooking and bottling was part of our industrious grandmothers’ seasonal workload while glistening jars sold at summer fairs represented little beacons of community spirit. But it’s chutney’s Anglo-Indian roots that cast it as fusion food from the days of Queen and Empire.
Chutney comes from the Sanskrit word catni. In India it is normally made fresh and served as a condiment to plainer dal, rice or breads, as well as curries, with endless variation across different regions. A traditional south Indian chutney, for example, combines the mild cooling effect of coconut with the freshness of coriander leaves and the spikiness of green chillies.
From the days of the British East India Company in 1612 select Indian spices started to become available in Britain, and curry and chutney were introduced to the British culinary lexicon.
As early as 1706 a mango chutney preserve was developed in India for export back to Britain by Crosse and Blackwell. Its commercial success meant other firms followed production with this style of chutney, heavy in sugar and vinegar.
Some Indian chutneys took their sourness from tamarind or green mangoes and their sweetness from jaggery, and it was probably something like this that the early Anglo-Indian chutney-makers tried to emulate.
Chutney recipes were published by popular cookery writers of the 18th and 19th centuries for British and Empire households. Chutney-making fitted into the established tradition of preserving and pickling the seasonal harvest. But outside India the produce and spices available were quite different, and the notion that India had such culinary diversity was simply unknown.
So chutney came to be known in Britain and her colonies as a sweet, sour and spicy preserve utilising seasonal produce, sugar, vinegar and a fairly standard set of available spices (ginger, cayenne pepper, generic ‘curry powder’ etc).
In Curry: A Biography Lizzie Collingham argues that distinctive regional dishes in India were often adapted for British palates so they ended up tasting similar to each other, creating a generic Anglo-Indian dish. This was true of ‘curry’ and also relevant to chutney.
Since Indian food was reintroduced afresh in the 20th Century by immigrants from the sub-continent, more authentic flavours from Indian cuisine have become a vital part of British food culture (along with contemporary Anglo-Indian hybrids like chicken tikka masala). Fresh and preserved Indian chutneys have their place here (usually at the start of the meal with poppadums…)
And the old Anglo-Indian chutney preserve still has its place too, transforming seasonal gluts of fruit and veg into a spicy condiment for use the whole year round.
How to make chutney preserves
Where to eat real Indian chutney in Auckland
Satya, 515 Sandringham Rd, ph 845 8451 (also five other branches in Auckland – see their website here)
For superb south Indian coconut-based chutneys served with excellent dosas, utthapams and idlis (a variety of crispy rice and lentil breads/ pancakes).