Here's Why You Should Always Have at Least One Chutney In Your Kitchen At All Times

These condiments of Indian origin are powerhouses in dips, marinades, salad dressing, spreads, and sauces.

a bowl of chutney next to some dates and ginger
Photo: Sabrina Tan/Dotdash Meredith

Idlis are my mother's favorite. The running joke on my mother's side of the family was the minute the news of my mother's impending visit came through snail mail, my grandfather asked my grandmother to start the prep for making those soft and pillowy steamed round cakes so famous in India. And my grandmother's idlis were divine. I carry a striking image of her cooking them in a brass idli pot with two O-shaped side handles over an open flame. While most Indians cook coconut chutney to escort idlis, my grandmother served them with raw banana chutney.

My head is full of memories of myriad, distinct chutneys prepared by my immediate and extended family. I come from a region in western India that turns near-everything — vegetables, lentils, fruits, seeds, nuts, herbs, you name it — into a chutney. (Case in point: My mother and her siblings whipped up a chutney from hibiscus flower petals when they were teenagers.)

The beauty of chutneys

Hot, sweet, spicy, tart, or an extraordinary combination of all, chutneys are condiments with concentrated flavor blasts. I remember chutneys altering the vibe around the dining table by elevating a not-so-favorite vegetable or dal with their party-in-the-mouth taste. Chutneys are served as a part of dinner or lunch in the Indian states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, customizing those meals for those who like sharp, amplified flavors. Another extremely important responsibility of chutney is to complement street food. Samosas, chaat, bhajiya, and vadas are woefully incomplete without chutney.

Since coming to the U.S. and setting up my own kitchen, I have an even deeper appreciation of chutneys and how they can complement foodways I've discovered here. With little or no tinkering, chutneys transform into dips, marinades, sauces, spreads, or accent flavors in a dish. One need only stroll the condiment aisle of a local grocery store (or check the data) to witness the exciting expansion of chutneys into American cooking.

Using chutneys in “composite” cooking

This brings me to a style of cooking I'm seeing increasingly in cookbooks and cooking blogs — what I'm calling composite cooking. It looks like this: Incorporate an Asian condiment into a tried and tested recipe, uplift a vegetable with an Indian spice mix, or spike pasta with an African sauce resulting in sublime dishes such as gochujang mac and cheese, chaat masala avocado toast, and harissa spaghetti.

So, if we can do this with other recipes, why not with chutneys? For example: I was planning a meal featuring uttapam (thick South Indian rice and lentil dosa studded with tomatoes, onions, and green chile peppers), but I did not plan for any chutney, which is a big problem. You cannot eat idli, dosa, or uttapam without any chutney — you just cannot! Inspiration struck and I combined peanut butter, sambal oelek (an Indonesian chili sauce), and lime juice in the blender and the result was what I've named fataafat chutney (fataafat means speedy in slang Hindi of Bombay). Creating chutneys or using chutneys in recipes is a perfect example of composite cooking.

Another beauty of chutneys? They come together in a snap. Most follow an easy template and they last for at least 10 days, if not more, in the fridge. Say you have a bunch of cilantro or parsley wilting in the fridge? Extend their life by blitzing them into a green chutney on a Sunday afternoon and you have an advanced ingredient ready to be used in splendid ways during the week. A tiny amount of prep over the weekend turns out to be the basis of a stunning variety of time-saving meals in a work-packed week.

Chutneys to have on hand (and what to do with them)

Here are five of my favorite chutneys, with some ideas for how to use them in your weekly menus.

Green Chutney

Thin out green chutney with some orange juice to marinate tofu, red bell pepper, zucchini, red onion chunks, and cherry tomatoes and grill. Plop a dollop of green chutney on a baked potato and sour cream. And green chutney as a sandwich spread is epic!

Dry Peanut Chutney

Substitute peanut butter with dry peanut chutney in savory dishes. Stir together a sauce of peanut chutney, soy sauce, any chile sauce of your choice, and rice vinegar. Stir fry chopped zucchini, bell peppers, canned baby corn, and mushrooms, pour in the sauce, and cooked udon or soba noodles. Garnish with thinly sliced spring onions and serve hot.

Onion Tamarind Chutney

Whip up a batch of onion tamarind chutney and try serving it with savory pancakes.

Mint Chutney

Spread mint chutney on a toasted bagel and cream cheese or add a dash on top of savory oatmeal.

Sweet and Sour Chutney

Add two tablespoons of sweet and sour chutney to a bowl of puffed rice (available in Asian grocery stores) or Rice Krispies. Mix in diced tomatoes, red onions, sliced green chile peppers, and chopped cilantro for an afternoon snack.

And that is why you must have a chutney in your fridge or pantry at all times!

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