Chutney is in vogue now with consumers – dishes that might have been called salsas in another era, can be labeled chutney today, to capture the cachet of Indian cuisine.
Chutney evolved as an integral part of Indian cuisine because the diet there consists largely of beans/rice – creating the need for flavor-enhancing accompaniments. In Indian cuisine, flavor traditionally is provided by fruit. Chutneys are prepared with a delicate balance of exotic fruits or vegetables, blended with spices and preserved by cooking with sugar, or served fresh. Chutneys liven up almost any entree with a fruity mix of sweetness and spice, can be grouped as a condiment or fruit jam. However, chutney signifies a dish that is Indian in origin, was adopted by the British in their occupation, and used today by chefs worldwide.
In India, there are 2-3000 different chutneys. Mango chutney is very popular in England, and it is sweet. Most chutney has a hot spice – as curry. Modern chutneys – as cilantro/mint – offer flavors without a rich sauce, or adding lots of fat. Seasonal chutneys include cranberry, eggplant, figs, gooseberries, peach and/or tomato. Chutney’s versatility adds to its appeal among professional culinary chefs.
Mangoes have always been part of India’s heart and history. The mango, Mangifera indica, seems to have originated in northeastern India, near the border of Myanmar, some 4,000 years ago. The Buccha’s preferred place of meditation was a shady mango grove. The 16th century, Mughal emperor Akbar, a Muslim of Mongol ancestry, completely endeared himself to the native Hindu populace by planting a garden of 100,000 choice mango trees in the northern state of Bihar. Even today, many Hindu marriages take place with auspicious mango leaves on the wedding pavilion. It is the country’s most important fruit, and India is the world’s leading mango producer, with an annual yield of close to 11 million tons – though it exports a mere 1.6 percent of what it grows. Indians consume the bulk of the crop.
From India, the mango spread north to China and to Southeast Asia, and cultivation was likely under way long before the seventh century, when Xuan Zang, a Chinese traveler, recorded information on mangoes and carried it to the East. Thailand and Vietnam became particularly entranced with the mango, developing their own, singular varieties, such as the former’s slender, beautifully tapered nam cod mai and the latter’s canary yellow chok anan. India’s 16th century, Portuguese colonists took the fruit west, which accounts for the mangoes in Africa and most of the Caribbean and Latin America. (The English name of the fruit comes from the Portuguese manga, which, in turn, was borrowed from the South Indian. Tamil word mangay.) In both the Caribbean and South Africa, Indian immigrant communities helped ignite a passion for mangoes, working them into the cuisine and planting orchards. Spanish galleons had brought the mango to Mexico, now the mail source of mangoes eaten in the United States, by the early 19th century.
In much of the world, mangoes are primarily eaten ripe. But semi ripe mangoes can also have their uses as in a fish curry. Completely hard, green, unripe mangoes (of any variety) have their place, too. In the Philippines, they have been served mouth-puckeringly our, pale green slices with a dip of bagoong, a salty fish paste, at the start of a meal. In Vietnam, there are wonderful salads with green mango, and in Thailand, vendors throw green mango slices into a plastic bag, tossed some sugar, salt, and red chilies in, twirled the bag to mix its contents, and hand it over.
But it is in the creation of chutneys and pickles, served daily in every Indian home and sold around the world, that green mangoes come into their own. Nature has made them both pectin-rich and acidic, ideal for preserves. Shortly after they appear on the trees, home cooks begin pickling, and the massive Indian preserve industry shifts into high gear.
May in Delhi has always been the same. Hot wind blow as if from furnaces gone wild, bringing with them the burning sands of the neighboring Rajasthan desert, which swirl and twirl and creep under firmly-closed doors with gritty determination. But the same sun that scorches the air and sand is benevolent to the green mangoes that hang pendulously, expectantly, from tall, shady trees. It kisses those sleeping beauties and puts a blush on them. Summers in North India may be hard and raw, but the powers that be have provided the most generous compensation: mangoes, the king of fruit. Their season is so short.
Mangoes in India are always referred to by their variety, just as cheeses are in Europe. Langras come form groves around the holy city of Varanasi (formerly Benares). Their skin stays dark green, the flesh is pale yellow, and their flavor is mildly sweet and sour. Too, there is the elegantly sweet – though far from sugary – dusehris from near Lucknow, with their oval, elongated, Modigliani shape and their yellowish-orange skin.
Mangoes were both local and seasonal. You ate what the area around you produced, when it produced it. Northerners ate northern mangoes. You hardly cared or knew what the rest of India was eating. All that has changed. There is the alphonso, brought in from India’s central west coast, and area that was once a Portuguese colony. It looks like a painted version of some ideal, mythical mango, a glowing orange with dabs of red, green, and yellow. The thick, orange – yellow flesh is as smooth as butter and sweeter than the best of peaches; it has no flaw.
Major Grey Chutney is not a brand, but a type. Legend has it that a Major Grey, on duty with the Bengal Lancers in India, found the local chutneys too hot/spicy for his bland English palate, and made his own using more fruit/sugar and less chilies. His concoction caught on, and proliferated when Western consumers asked for it by name.
In the 1830s, a number of mangoes began arriving in the Unites States, and were all planted in the hospitable climate of south Florida. The hardiest of these, exported from India and planted in 1889, gave rise to a variety called mulgoba. One of its descendants, the haden, is a mango common in the Americas today; the other main commercial mango types in this country are the kent, the keitt, the ataulfo, and – claiming 90 % of the market share – the tommy atkins.
Something strange happened to the mango in the United States. Whereas Indian growers, through systematic grafting, had taken the requisite centuries to breed mangoes with meltingly satin-smooth fruit, some modern-day mango farmers in Florida – our primary mango producing state, the others being California and Hawaii – decided that such “yard” mangoes were too delicate to withstand the rigors of shipping and storing and chose instead to focus their efforts on fiber-filled varieties like the tommy atkins. The result was a large, indifferent, stringy fruit, totally unlike the glories found in India. These mangoes are now grown in Mexico and the Caribbean, too, and when imported into this country are subjected to prolonged immersion in hot water baths to kill fruit flies, which further impairs their flavor and texture. (There is hope: some independent U.S. growers are cultivating delicious fruit, including strains of kent and keitt, and a handful will ship their mangoes by mail.)
Another problem is that mangoes here are, more often than not, sold and eaten before they are completely ripe. Precious eating mangoes of high quality are never left to ripen fully on the trees, because insects would get at them before people could; all over the world, they are picked slightly before they are ripe. But in the States, this semi ripe fruit is commonly sold as is and eaten before it is really ready.
In Asia, mangoes meant for eating ripe are, after they’re picked, carefully placed in straw-lined baskets. The fruit seller holds them in the straw until they are ripe or sells them to knowledgeable customers, who might say to him, “I want to eat some of your best alphonsos three days from now. What do you have?” The barely under ripe fruit is taken home and wrapped in newspaper or straw and left unrefrigerated. When it gives to a firm touch, it is ripe and is either plunged into a bucket of icy water or refrigerated and devoured soon afterward. In Thailand, sheer ripe mangoes served with coconut-flavored glutinous rice are a much loved dessert, families often buy whole baskets of mangoes in straw and place them under their beds. When the aroma begins to over power the room, the mangoes are considered ready!
An advantage of chutney is that they can have a long shelf life, if properly stored in plastic, then covered and refrigerated. Chutney, like red wine, can improve with age. Chutneys are a natural for practitioners of fusion cuisine – chefs are using multiple components in the architecture of their food.
Chutney, although traditionally served as an accompaniment with Indian meals, is today used as an ingredient – as well as a dip, spread, and topping from meatloaf to sandwiches. Chutneys are good with fish, and with grilled/roasted meats. Chutney is a yin yang taste with sweet and sour.