Chutneys and Pickles

Chutneys
Hotter than blazes or ingratiatingly sweet or sour, chutneys add an astonishing diversity of flavors to a meal. Chutneys have a position of prominence in the food of any part of India, and they are prepared with a limitless variety of ingredients. Though the appeal of chutney is global, Indian chutney has no true equivalent condiment in any other cuisine.

There are three varieties of chutney: fresh chutneys, cooked chutneys, and dry chutneys. Fresh South Indian chutneys are smooth, uncooked purees seasoned with fried mustard seeds, dal, and curry leaves. They are best when freshly made, but they will stay good for a couple of days if refrigerated. Cooked chutneys are soft and pulpy mixtures of cooked ingredients, again seasoned with fried mustard seeds, dal, and curry leaves. These chutneys have a longer shelf life. Leftover chutney may be refrigerated or frozen to be used at a later time as required. Remember to thaw only what is needed, and do not refreeze it. Dry chutneys are prepared with toasted coconut, sesame seeds, and dal. They remain fresh for a longer time at cool room temperature.

A few readily available, fresh ingredients and a solid blender are all you need to prepare fresh chutneys. These simple condiments taste good with Indian food, and they also make excellent dips with a variety of Indian and western appetizers. If you enjoy serving a variety of dishes at your parties, serve appetizers along with Indian chutneys. Your guests will certainly come back for seconds.


Pickles
“Pickle” is quite a misleading term when it comes to Indian pickles. South Indian pickles are as fiery as the prevailing temperatures—the hotter, the better. They also tend to be very salty, as salt is the main preservative ingredient.When a traditional meal is served on banana leaves, one or two pickles are served at the tapering end of the leaf. In any South Indian pantry, you will find several jars of spicy hot pickles. Most pickles keep for a few months; some like kadumaanga and ennamaanga keep for years.

My mother insisted that hand pounding spices made a world of difference in the taste of her pickles, because it brought out the best flavor of spices. In her opinion machine grinding unnecessarily heated the spices and took away some essential flavors. In old days pickles were stored in huge ceramic jars called bharani, and after filling the jar with fresh pickles, a clean piece of cloth soaked in sesame oil was laid on top. The lid was placed on top of it and then sealed with wet clay. When the clay dried it became air tight. The pickle jars were moved into a corner of th pantry where it stayed for months undisturbed. The preparation, storage and months later the opening of the sealed jars of pickles was all like a ritual.

South Indian pickles are made with mangoes, lemon, bitter lemon, gooseberry, bitter gourd, green chilies, and ginger and others. The selection of fruits and vegetables, chili powder, oil, mustard powder and salt and the mixing of these ingrtedients in the proper way, all contribute ro the taste of the pickle. The real secret of spicing and seasoning is not only in which spices to use but also how you use them - whether raw or roasted, whole or ground.

An important thing in making homemade pickles is to use clean, dry, airtight jars for storing. If you want to try a hot pickle before preparing a whole batch, you can always pick up a jar at an Indian grocery. There are some very good brands of South Indian pickles available in the U.S. market; Priya, M.T.R., and Narasu’s are my personal favorites. They are fairly inexpensive, and a bottle will last a long time. After use, refrigerate the pickle bottle.

AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN