What does “chutney” mean to you?
When most people think of chutney, what comes to mind is usually a sweet-savory fruit based condiment with a jam-like consistency. Most Westerners would name a mango chutney, such as Major Grey’s, which is very sweet, with just a touch of salt and savory spice added to differentiate it from a jam. These are the chutneys made by the English, and are tasty, but a world apart from what inspired them.
Chutneys, which originated in India, are condiments traditionally made with a variety of vegetables or fruits blended together with spices and chilies. Indian chutneys can either be fresh, like a Mexican salsa, or pickled, like the form more familiar to most of us, in which case they are usually sweetened. Just a few examples include coconut, mint, tamarind, green (unripe) mango, prune, and tomato. As an accompaniment to fiery spiced curries, sweet chutneys can cool down the palate. They are also used as a flavor to accompany plain flatbreads, such as roti paratha and naan. The British, when they came to India, quickly adapted chutneys for their taste, hence the jam-like versions widely eaten in the West today.
There’s a specific kind of mango chutney eaten in Trinidad, a country where half of the population has roots in India. It’s called kuchela, and is very different from the mango chutney you’ll find elsewhere. It’s made of grated green mangoes, and spiced with the unique taste of amchar (a spice blend), garlic, and chili. The flavors are spicy, salty, and sour, with sometimes just a touch of sweetness, in contrast to the Anglicized versions. It’s used, like other chutneys, to enhance the flavor of curries, roti, rice dishes like pelau, the popular snack food called doubles, and really just about everything. The first time I had it, I was in Kingston, Jamaica, at the home of a family who had previously lived in Trinidad. I remember that, in contrast to the overwhelming generosity and graciousness that my hosts otherwise displayed, the kuchela was carefully controlled. Making homemade kuchela is a laborious process, so it is a carefully savored and protected item to have in your pantry. I was given a spoonful to try before the small jar was quickly put away. It’s that special, and that precious. (I wanted more.)
Kuchela goes well with any Indian food. But in our house, we eat it with just about anything, we love it so much. I often stir it into scrambled eggs, use it to top Chinese fried rice, or to give flavor to ham or other sandwiches.
Besides kuchela, Trinidad is famous for also inventing another kind of chutney. This chutney is a genre of music derived from traditional Indian bhojpuri folk songs, modern Trinidadian soca, and Indian film songs. Chutney’s origins are fascinating. This genre began with religious (Hindu) origins: the custom of Indian Trinidadians was for the women to sing before the wedding celebration to prepare the bride-to-be for her role as a wife. The songs, which included some suggestive lyrics, and the dancing which accompanied them, gradually became part of the larger Trinidadian community among all its subcultures. These days, chutney is sung by both men and women, and has moved far from its original religious origins. While traditional Indian rhythms and Indian classical string and percussion instruments form the backbone of chutney, modern influences include Bollywood movies, and more local musical forms including calypso, soca, dancehall reggae, and roots reggae. Some of the most recent hybrids have blended chutney with reggaeton from Latin America. True cross-pollenation.
Words can only do so much to describe this fascinating music. So here is a fun animated video clip which is a tribute to both kinds of Trinidad chutney– the food (kuchela), and the music. Enjoy!
* * *
Indian-Style Scrambled Eggs with Kuchela
Here is one of my favorite ways to enjoy kuchela. This is an easy, yet flavorful brunch dish that gives an Indian spin to the traditional scrambled eggs and toast. To keep with the Indian theme, I recommend serving this with roti paratha or naan, but other flatbreads or your favorite toast would work as well. Enjoy with chai or other tea, and play some chutney in the background.
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1/4 red onion, sliced in slivers
1/4 cup minced cilantro
2 Tbsp prepared kuchela (recipe below)
2 Tbsp canola oil
Accompaniment: roti paratha, naan, other flatbread or toast
1. Whisk together eggs, milk and salt until frothy. Set aside.
2. Heat oil in a frying pan. When warm, add sliced onions and sauté for 1 minute.
3. Add in egg mixture, and scramble over low-medium heat.
4. When eggs are slightly set, add in minced cilantro.
5. When eggs are cooked, take off heat, then add in kuchela and gently combine.
6. Serve while hot, with hot roti.
Kuchela (Trinidadian Indian Green Mango Condiment)
12 green (unripe) mangoes
1 head garlic, peeled
5-6 scotch bonnet peppers (habañero may be substituted)
1 pkt. or 1/3 cup Amchar masala (a spice blend; to make your own, see recipe below)
1-1½ c mustard oil
2 tsp. light brown sugar
salt to taste
1. Peel and grate mangoes.
2. Squeeze liquid out from the grated mangoes .
3. Spread the grated mangoes out on a flat surface and sun-dry for 1 day or leave in an oven on low heat for a few hours.
4. Mince garlic and peppers together.
5. Combine grated dried mango, garlic, pepper, sugar, amchar masala and salt.
6. Place in a jar with a tight fitting lid. Can be eaten immediately, for best flavor, allow to pickle for 2 weeks before using.
4 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
1 teaspoon whole brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon whole fenugreek seeds
1. Dry roast all ingredients in a heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes, to release the spice’s aroma and essential oils.
2. After cooling, grind into a fine powder in a coffee grinder.
Note: If you find it difficult to find the ingredients for making your own kuchela, or would prefer to purchase a prepared version, do what many Trinidadians do and buy a jar from Matouk’s. It’s even available on Amazon.com.
Photo credit: top photo via Wikipedia.
Video via YouTube.
All other photos and text © 2010 Linda Shiue.
This was published on Salon.com on June 14, 2010.