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Sweet 'n' Sour: Chutneys cross the Atlantic to brighten tables with their spicy, fruity flavors
Chutneys make a piquant dip for pappadum at Silence-Heart-Nest restaurant in Seattle's University District. Clockwise from center front are: coriander, tamarind raisin, spicy tomato, cranberry and mango.
THE WORD CHUTNEY has become so synonymous with Indian food that a group of Indian restaurants in Seattle has adopted the word as their name. It may come as a surprise, then, to discover that the chutneys we are familiar with are not really Indian. They were created by the British, just like another well-known "Indian" condiment, curry powder. Both are products of a hybrid cuisine, Anglo-Indian cooking, which evolved during the British Raj.

To think that cooked fruit chutneys are inauthentic and that only freshly made Indian chutneys are authentic, however, is not entirely accurate. Shantha Benegal, a singer and teacher of Indian music in Seattle, explains that there are many kinds of chutney in India (the word is anglicized from the Hindi chatni, meaning spiced paste). In Bengal or eastern India, for example, fresh or dried fruit is cooked with ginger, green chili and spices into a syrup that retains some pieces of fruit. This may have been the inspiration for cooked chutneys such as Major Grey's, because the British were headquartered in Calcutta in Bengal during a major part of colonial rule.

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At the turn of the 17th century, Anglo-Indian chutneys, which have the advantage of keeping well, added interest to food during the long sea voyage back to England. Imitating these fashionable chutneys, English cooks concocted recipes using local fruit, mustard and sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves. The British emphasized the sweet aspect of chutney, and even today, the descendants of these Western chutneys taste too sweet and a little odd to me — a set of ingredients lacking the intricate balance of sweet, sour and hot that is the hallmark of a good mango chutney, which is definitely an inspired creation.

Fresh Indian chutneys, which must be eaten within a few days of making, are a different breed altogether. Benegal likens them to pesto, an apt comparison, as they are made with a mortar and pestle with fresh ingredients, including herbs. Typical of these relishes is mint chutney, popular throughout North India, and one of my favorites. It is made of fresh mint and coriander leaves, green chili, lemon juice and salt, with ginger, onion or garlic. It may be slightly sweetened with a touch of honey.

Among other fresh chutneys, my favorites are raisin-tamarind, an unlikely but tasty pairing of sour tamarind fruit pulp with sweet raisins plus hot spices, and coconut chutney, a creamy and mildly spiced mixture that goes particularly well with South Indian snacks made of ground rice and lentils.

Chutneys are used to add pizzazz to relatively bland foods. They accompany samosas, Indian turnovers stuffed with ground meat or potatoes and peas, and biriyani, a layered and baked festive dish of rice and meat with fragrant spices.

But chutneys need not be limited to Indian food. Piquant, emerald-green mint chutney can be served with roast lamb and chicken or grilled white fish, swirled decoratively on top of cream soups or a plate of hummus, and drizzled on fried eggs or mashed potatoes. Coconut chutney makes a sophisticated dip for a vegetable platter of zucchini, carrots and cauliflower. Mango or date and almond chutney can be spread along with mayonnaise on turkey, chicken or vegetarian sandwiches.

Like diners of a couple of centuries ago on the other side of the Atlantic, you may discover that chutneys add sparkle to familiar foods and bring a touch of the East to your table.

Andrew A. Jayasundera is a publications specialist and freelance writer. He can be reached at Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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