A scrap of Indian verse from the days of the Raj goes like this: "All things chickeney and mutton'y, taste better far when served with chutney." Sticky, thick, sweet chutneys, hot-sour pickles and spicy relishes must be the most enduring inheritance from our days as a colonial power.
Chutneys especially. We've been preserving foods in vinegar since Roman times. Pickles, preserved in salt, betray our Germanic origins ("pikle" is a Germanic word for brine). But chutneys are something else, utterly exotic, evocative, the spicy flavour of the east. Of the East India Company, to be more precise. The authentic chutni or chatni of India is not the cooked preparation that we are familiar with in Britain. It is in fact a fresh, pungent paste used like a condiment with a curry, spread on naan bread or chapatis, mixed into rice.
Such preparations will usually include crushed garlic and green ginger, pounded green chillies, grated coconut, chopped coriander leaves, mint, and ground seeds such as cumin and cardomom. These relishes became so popular with English traders and soldiers in the 17th century they soon found their way onto the sailing ships, to accompany travellers on the slow voyages home. They added much-needed interest to a dull ship-board diet of dried and salted foods. Sugar, salt, spice (and all things nice) ensured their keeping qualities.
Those who ate them back in Britain soon became addicted. There being no mangoes, tamarind or limes, English cooks did their best with apples, onions and vinegar, adding dried fruit such as sultanas, raisins and dates, and even marrow (spiked with ginger powder) to mimic ginger preserves.
So it was that a spiced sweet-and-sour fruit chutney jam found its way into our culinary culture, enjoyed in its own right, though we continue to seek out authentic Indian mango chutneys, brinjal (aubergine) pickles and lime pickle.
At the same time, we developed our own turmeric-stained piccalillis made with salted, vinegared vegetables. And our own spicy fruit sauces: the HP and OK sauces of motorway pull-ups belong to this tradition, and the souring agent is still the astringent Indian dried fruit, tamarind.
British and Indian food cultures may be worlds apart but there is room for both, as this week's recipes will show. (In a country so intemperate that we often can't ripen tomatoes in August, green tomato chutney surely represents a triumph of gastronomic invention.) But how authentic are the so-called Indian chutneys we buy from our supermarkets? "I don't want to criticise competitors," says Mrs Mina Bassa who has developed a much- praised home-made range. "But chutneys depend on the quality of the ingredients that goes into them."
A chutney lesson is promptly agreed. The wafted smell of cooking spices draws you from a busy arterial road in Wandsworth and into a first-floor industrial unit, shelved with dozens of kinds of pickle, chutney and paste. The most popular variety, now simmering away on the stove, is the garlic pickle.
Mina Bassa started up only five years ago, making a recipe from a niece. Friends were so impressed they urged her to do it professionally. She took a short business course and soon turned over her home kitchen to the project. As popularity grew, her sons got fed up, she says. "The house was getting so smelly." She decided to move to an industrial unit.
Now she's been joined by her married daughter, Niloufer, 23, who takes charge of buying fresh produce in markets. "You have to buy the best of everything, especially spices," says Niloufer. "Sometimes the only guide is price. I was very angry when I found that a cheap chilli powder was being passed off as the best. It was a very fiery, harsh chilli that blows you away. In India it's the chilli the poor use to fire them up in cold weather before they go to work in the fields."
The Bassa business is modest. They visit food fairs, and sell from a stall on Sundays in Merton Abbey Mills (in South Wimbledon), a covered market. They have built up a mail-order business which owes much to repeat orders (pounds 2.50 to pounds 3.75 a jar is small price to pay for such delights; for details call 0181 871 4460). Mrs Bassa treasures a letter from a Kent lady which reads: "I am 71-years-old and born in dear India in the days of what is now called the British Raj. Your pickles and chutneys brought tears of joy and happy memories for the Real Tastes of my childhood. Thank you."
Niloufer is keen to expand the business but not if it means compromise. She's particularly possessive about her green-coriander relish, personally buying three boxes a week to grind to a paste. "I talked to one supermarket buyer who said I ought to make the paste thicker (thicker? how, with cornflour?) and do it in a different colour. A different colour! What different colour? He said he didn't know, just a different colour." Hmm. Her paste stays coriander green.
Mina is stirring a big pan. Using a commercial spice-grinder with stone wheels, she has pounded a mixture of dry whole spices to a paste with a little malt vinegar. She fries the spices gently in a pool of sunflower oil until they begin to yield their heady aromas, and then adds some garlic paste.
Now she tips in seven pounds of large cloves of peeled Spanish garlic and stirs for 10 minutes. In go 5lbs of brown sugar and two pints of Sarson's malt vinegar (it's vital to use only the best), stirred until it dissolves. She adds nearly 4ozs salt. When everything is simmering nicely she adds a pound of trimmed small green chillies, and leaves the mixture to cook for one hour. The garlic develops a rich, deep, sweet flavour. It is ladled into washed jars which have been heated in the oven to sterilise. Like all pickles it improves with several months keeping.
She makes mango chutney and mango pickle in season. Mango pickle is made only when the hard, very sour rajapuri mangoes are available. Mango chutney is made all-the-year round, using ripe firm fruit, and never soft over- ripe mangoes. Her most popular is sweet and mild, though some purists prefer thick and hot. And there's a very sweet one with dates.
It requires a great deal of experience and judgement to make finely spiced Indian chutneys to Mrs Bassa's standard. But happily, home cooks will find that making fruity English chutneys is a very forgiving discipline.
At worst they may look like brown slurry but, with good judgement, they will be sweet and sour and spicy, and delightful with cold meats and bread- and-cheese.
This is another chutney in the tradition of the Raj, which can usefully accommodate a seasonal glut of garden plums. This recipe, and the one for Frances Smith's Green Tomato Chutney which follows below, are both from the admirable Perfect Pickle Book by David Mabey and David Collison (BBC pounds 5.99).
Makes about 2kg/4lb
1.5kg/3lbs 4oz cooking plums, stoned and roughly chopped
450g/1lb Bramley apples, peeled, cored and chopped
450g/1lb onions, peeled and thinly sliced
350g/12oz light brown sugar
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons (2 x 5ml spoons) ground ginger
2 teaspoons (2 x 5ml spoons) ground cloves
2 teaspoons (2 x 5ml spoons) salt
pinch of cayenne pepper
600ml/1 pint cider vinegar
Prepare the plums and apples and pour into a large pan with the sugar, garlic and spices. Add the vinegar. Blend over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved, then cook slowly for about two hours, stirring regularly.
When the chutney has a smooth thick consistency, remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly before packing into clean, warmed jars. Cover and seal when cold. This chutney will keep well for up to six months.
FRANCES SMITH'S GREEN TOMATO CHUTNEY
If you want any cooked green chutney to stay green, you must not include apple. Experienced makers of preserves know that it produces a red or pink colour as soon as the temperature goes over a certain level - as it may well do when a chutney thickens. Any schoolchild with a paintbox discovers that red and green make brown - that depressingly uniform sludge of so many chutney recipes.
Also use white vinegar (preferably wine), and white sugar as for jam. This recipe involves straining and separating juice from pulp, but Frances Smith considers this to be the best way to ensure the chutney does not overcook or burn. The recipe is equally good for yellow or red tomatoes (in the latter case, red wine vinegar is preferable).
Makes about 2kg/4lb
1.5kg/3lbs 4oz green tomatoes
1 large onion
1 teaspoon (1 x 5ml spoon) black peppercorns
1 teaspoon(1 x 5ml spoon) white mustard seeds
3 cardamom pods
12 teaspoon (12 x 5ml spoon) allspice berries
a piece of peeled root ginger about the size of a hazelnut, sliced
600ml/1 pint white-wine vinegar
450g/1lb white sugar
Hull and wash the tomatoes and cut into small pieces about 1.5cm (12 inch) square. Peel the onion and chop into very small dice rather than shreds. Put into a large pan with the wine vinegar. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until soft. Add the sugar and continue to simmer, stirring all the time to prevent sticking.
After 20 minutes put the mixture through a coarse strainer or jelly bag, collect the liquid and reduce the juice to setting temperature on a jam thermometer. Recombine the juice and pulp, return to the heat and simmer for about five minutes or until the chutney has a thick, even consistency. Allow to cool a little, pack into cleaned, warmed jars and store in a cool place for at least two months before opening.
EAST INDIA COMPANY CHUTNEY
According to Henry Sarson, who built up the famous malt vinegar company, this is an authentic chutney recipe from the East India Company. (This is a scaled down version of his 1940 recipe, which was made in huge quantities, to supply the whole Company).
1kg/2lbs 4oz apples
1kg/2lbs 4oz brown sugar
30g/1oz dried chillies (or teaspoon chilli powder)
60g/2oz mustard seed
1 teaspoon ground ginger
570ml/12 pint malt vinegar
Peel and slice the apples, mix with the salt and allow to stand 24 hours. Drain the apples from the brine, boil in vinegar till tender, and allow to cool. The next day, put the sultanas, raisins, garlic and chillies through a fine mincer and pound together the mustard and ginger. Add the sugar to the other vinegar, and simmer to form a syrup, then add the mustard and ginger and simmer for five minutes. Add the minced dried fruits, garlic and chillies, and finally the apples and vinegar. Mix well, simmer until thick, put in warmed jars, seal. For an aromatic flavour, an ounce of ground cloves and an ounce of allspice may be added. Long maturing is an advantage. It will keep indefinitely - I know of some five years old.
MRS BASSA'S MANGO CHUTNEY
The difference between this and the usual bought variety is taste, texture and quality. Most commercial mango chutneys lack texture, having been cooked to a puree. In this recipe mangoes are cut into very small pieces, which are designed to retain their texture in the cooking. This is my version of her chutney. The cooking is completed within half an hour, so it's not unduly time-consuming.
Makes about 4lbs
1.5kg/3lbs 4oz mangoes (ripe but still hard)
1kg/2lbs 4oz white sugar
3.5cm/112in green ginger, peeled, cut into matchsticks
5 cloves garlic, peeled, finely sliced
60g/2oz raisins (or sultanas)
12-1 teaspoon chilli powder (to taste)
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
300ml/10fl oz best malt vinegar (eg Sarson's)
You'll have about five good-sized mangoes. Peel them, remove the stones, cutting as much flesh from them as possible, reserving the juice. This will leave you approximately 1kg (2lbs 4oz) of mango. Weigh out an equal amount of sugar.Cut the mangoes into thin slices, about an inch by a quarter inch (this isn't possible if mangoes are soft and over-ripe). Equally, you can cut them into very small dice.
Put the mangoes in a large bowl and pour the sugar over the top. Leave for two hours, when the juices from the mangoes will have run into the sugar. In a large saucepan, cook mangoes and sugar till translucent, some 10 minutes or so, stirring to prevent burning. A scummy froth will form. Lower heat and carefully skim with a spoon.
Now stir in the ginger and garlic and cook for a few minutes. Add the raisins, chilli powder and salt, heat through, and finally add the vinegar. Boil briskly, stirring, well for 15 to 20 minutes to thicken.
Don't overcook; when it darkens it will start to caramelise and lose its piquancy. If it still seems too liquid, cook a little longer to dry out. You can test for texture by putting a teaspoonful on a plate chilled in the freezer. But you're not looking for a perfect set, just a nice, dense, stickiness. Ladle into well-washed sterilised jars. Seal. The chutney improves with keeping, allowing time for the flavour to mature. It's best after two months - if you can wait.
LIME (OR LEMON) PICKLE
This recipe is from Julia Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking (Dorling Kindersley pounds 7.95), a classic in its own right.
112 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
2 tablespoons red pepper
1 tablespoon turmeric
12 teaspoon ground asafoetida (if available)
6 tablespoons coarse salt
250ml/8fl oz light sesame or peanut oil
10 limes or 6 lemons
Heat a small frying pan over medium heat. When it is very hot, add the mustard and fenugreek seeds, and roast until the mustard seeds turn grey and the fenugreek dark brown (about five minutes), stirring constantly. Add red pepper, turmeric, and asafoetida, all at once, and stir rapidly for 10-15 seconds to roast the ground spices slightly. Transfer the spices to a small plate or bowl, and let them cool briefly. Grind to a fine powder in a coffee grinder, or use a mortar and pestle. Return them to the bowl, stir in salt, and set aside.
Wash limes (or lemons) in running cold water, and dry carefully. Cut each into eight slices, and set aside.
Heat the oil in an enamel pan until very hot; then turn off the heat. Add the spices, stir for briefly, and follow at once with the lime (or lemon) pieces. Stir to coat, and transfer to a sterilised jar. When thoroughly cooled, cap the jar with its lid. Let stand for 15 days, stirring once every day, before use.
BRUNO LOUBET'S PICCALILLI
A sophisticated modern version
4 tablespoons olive oil
150g/5oz carrots diced
1 red sweet pepper, seeded and diced
150g/5oz fennel bulb, diced
150g/5oz celery, diced
150g/5oz onions, finely chopped
200g/7oz tiny cauliflower florets
1 bay leaf
2 garlic cloves finely chopped
1 teaspoon curry powder
100ml/312fl oz white wine
1 teaspoon sugar
200ml/7fl oz water
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
100g/312oz courgettes diced
1 tablespoon cornflour mixed with 3 tablespoons water
1tablespoon coarse-grain mustard
12 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander
Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the carrots, red pepper, fennel, celery, onion and cauliflower. Stir for a few minutes, then add the bay leaf, garlic, ginger, turmeric, curry powder and white wine. Season with salt and pepper. Add the sugar. Pour in the water and vinegar, bring to the boil. Simmer for five minutes, then add the courgettes and cook for a further two minutes. Gradually stir in the cornflour mixture, adding just enough to thicken the liquid to the right consistency. Stir in the mustard and cook for a final two minutes. Add the chopped coriander, mix well and pour on to a plate to cool.
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