For many, a trip to an Indian restaurant or takeaway just isn’t the same without tucking into crisp poppadoms slathered in chutneys and pickles. But far too often, the same selection is served up again and again.
Chutneys and pickles (achaar) are condiments found in every kitchen across India, and every single region has their own unique recipes.
When paired well, chutneys and pickles can elevate the flavour of a dish to new heights. The deliciously colourful condiments come in an array of tastes and textures, bringing sweetness, spice, tang, crunch or saltiness in every bite.
In this article, we’ll discuss the history and importance of chutneys and pickles in Indian cooking. We’ll also cover some of the most beloved condiments commonly found in Indian kitchens, that you can try making at home.
The Origin of Chutney
Chutneys have a long history in Indian cuisine. They’re believed to have their beginnings back in 500 BCE, when simple versions of these preserves were created using ingredients like coconut, tamarind, cucumber, mint, spices, and a teeny bit of unrefined sugar.
The word chutney comes from the Hindi word chatni which means ‘to lick’, so we can assume that these original simpler condiments were still very enticing to the palate.
What is Chutney?
Chutneys are usually made from vegetables, herbs, or fruit. They are popular additions to every meal and come in a vast array of textures, colours and tastes.
Chutneys often lean on the spicy, sour, or sweet side, providing a wonderful burst of flavour that further enhance the complex layers of Indian cuisine.
Mint & Coriander Chutney
The delightful combination of fresh mint, zesty coriander, spicy ginger and chillis make this chutney a herby favourite.
It can be prepared in a variety of ways, most commonly by blending together fresh coriander, mint leaves, garlic, green chilis, lime juice, cumin, salt and water into a thick, dark green sauce.
Use the chutney to add some heat and freshness to warm paratha bread, Indian snacks called chaat, and other fried finger foods like samosas.
When compared to other, more powerful condiments, coconut chutney can be said to be on the milder side. The taste can be slightly bitter and is often compared to a savoury coconut macaroon.
Most popular in Southern India and a staple in Chennai cuisine, coconut chutney pairs very well with southern-style fare like vada, masala dosa and idli, which are small patties made of rice (cooked in an idli maker).
Coconut chutneys are usually made with freshly grated coconut, ground to a smooth pulp or paste, coriander seeds, ginger, white lentils, mustard seeds, red chilis and curry leaves.
Common variations of coconut chutney are:
- White: where asafoetida is added.
- Green: where mint and coriander marry with the rest of the coconut chutney recipe.
- Red: a combination of chilli spice and lentil goodness.
Tamarind, a brown, pod-like fruit with sweet, tangy pulp, is slowly simmered with a mix of spices and unrefined sugar to make a thick and sticky sauce that is loved by many – but too tangy for some.
This sweet-and-sour chutney is an especially popular side for chaat (Indian snacks) like pani puri, bhel puri, sev puri, aloo tikki, pakoras and samosas.
The smooth, reddish-brown coloured chutney adds the zing necessary to complete many popular street foods. It’s typically served alongside green chilli chutney and is intended to help cut the heat with its sweetness.
Popular the world over, mango chutney is prepared by sauteing diced mangoes with unique varieties of spices and lemon juice.
Mangoes are a favourite Indian fruit harvested before the monsoon season, and different chutney recipes call for raw, dried, or powdered mango. Different spices like ginger, garlic, chilli, coriander, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon are added to the vinegar base, but recipes vary in complexity and ingredients.
The Origin of Indian Pickles
Now that we have gone over the most popular chutneys, it’s time to turn our attention to achaars.
Like the pickles of the West, achaar is a primarily savoury condiment –but that’s where the likeness to their European counterparts ends.
Achaar is a preserve, primarily spicy, and can be made from fruits or vegetables. When the chilli plant was introduced to India in the 15th century, it was quickly incorporated into achaar because of its preservative properties.
Nowadays, pickles are on the table for most meals in the Indian homestead. They’re especially popular during marriage ceremonies and festivals where you’ll find a variety of achaar made with mango, lemon, vegetables and more. You might even find non-vegetarian versions of achaar made with fish, prawns and meat.
What Is Achaar?
Rather than using vinegar, salt and sugar, Indian pickles use various oils and spices to create a preservation process. Each region of India uses a certain oil – in North India, most achaar uses mustard oil, and in the South, sesame oil is more common.
The preserve is created by simmering the fruits or vegetables in oil and uses spices such as fenugreek, mustard and fennel. Sometimes citrus or vinegar is used in the simmering stage before infusing the base with a special mixture of spices.
Achaar is normally used to make spicy dishes even spicier, adding a briny, slightly acidic flavour to dishes like dal or sabzi. But there are achaar that are not intended to spice things up and are instead mild and sometimes even sweet.
In many Indian homes, you’ll find achaar being prepared in jars at the beginning of the hot summers, left in the sunlight anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
Popular Indian Pickles
Aam (Mango) Ka
The unripened green mangoes in this recipe are key to getting the sour flavour necessary for the zing that lovers of this achaar are expecting in each bite.
It’s especially delicious with puri (a fried bread), rice and vegetable dishes.
To create this sour and spicy side, you will need green unripened mangoes, mustard, chillis, garlic and salt to add to the oil, making a beautifully red-coloured achaar, with pops of green.
Spicy, earthy, tangy, sweet, this is the achaar that can be put on anything and everything. ‘Pachranga’ is actually the name of a company in India that manufactures this pickle, but it has become a product almost everyone knows and uses.
It’s a blend of mango, lotus root, turnip, carrot, red chilis, cumin and ginger. Full of rich colours and flavours, pachranga achaar pairs nicely with most Indian cuisine.
A perfect sweet and sour combo, lemon achaar is dear to many food lovers’ hearts. It’s typically added to any kind of Indian rice dish, elevating it with acidity and sweetness.
Ingredients commonly include lemon, sugar, turmeric, red chilli powder, ginger and mustard seed. These are heated in oil to make a red-coloured pickle with pops of yellow.
Amla (Gooseberry) Achaar
This popular achaar is tangy and goes perfectly with dals and rice dishes. The spicy and sour flavour lingers mostly because of the fenugreek and fennel seeds.
In addition to the gooseberries, mustard seeds, fenugreek, fennel, red chilis and turmeric are added to mustard oil to create this deliciously tangy achaar.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you feel inspired to explore more of the condiments that can be used to enhance the flavours of your main dishes.
So many of the mentioned chutneys and pickles are simple to make, using easy to find ingredients. So next time you indulge in Indian cuisine, give one of the above condiments a go!
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