Ever wondered why relishes make you so happy? Find the reason.

By Madhulika Dash; Pictures: Stock Images

Come summers and among the few things that make their comeback on the dining table (and our meals) are the chutney. These lip-smacking dishes that are built to pucker you up, and instantly transform any meal, including the stale chapati or a sandwich into a palate fest. So excellent has this side dish been in its role as a tastemaker and taste-enhancer that few meals today look complete without the presence of this pucker-up specialist. In fact, many of our composite meals are completed with this one addition to it. Think of Pakoda, Idli, Paratha or even Khichdi. Such is their importance in the cuisine that often chefs too route for these amazing flavour bombs to give their reinterpreted dishes, its touch of familiarity and of course taste.

But ever wondered how and when did these chutneys come to the fore? And was taste making their original role? According to various anthropologists and food historians, the ancestry of chutneys is as old as our Samhitas and came under this broad subject called Kashayam – essentially a chapter dedicated to an array of such nutritionally-dense concoctions that could help treat ailments starting with stomach upset, flu to serious issues like scurvy. A claim that Ibn Sina book on Unani medicine corroborates too. According to culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (Chefpreneur Fabrica By Saby), “chutneys fascinatingly followed the same route as ladoos initially. They were made to serve a certain wellness aspect where you needed to administer a certain herbs, spice or ingredient in a slight larger quantity than was acceptable in the regular meals. Chutneys or Pachadis provided that platform where not only one could mix and match raw with cooked and temper, but treat them as per the requirement.”

The beauty was, says Chef Gorai, “that each method that was adopted to ensure maximum benefit could be extracted from each ingredient eventually led to the creation of these layers of flavours that our tongue (and mind) decodes as taste – and was effective enough to jog our creative juices that would then be able to break down even a heavier meal including a paratha.”

In fact, points our Chef Mandar Madav (Executive Chef, Conrad Centennial Singapore), “in doing so chutneys rose to the level of fat like ghee and butter, which are often considered not only the “delicious” aspect behind any dish but also one of the important “keys” to jog an appetite and resultant satiation.”

But the tastemaking was one significant side of the chutney story, adds Chef Madav, who finds the technique as another practice that led to sustainable living too, “the other side of the story was also the kind of properties that this mish-mashing of ingredients brought  to the fore. Aside of the fact that chutneys often were designed to use a lot of raw ingredients including stalks that would not be used otherwise, the charm of these dishes were the different ways that each of the ingredient was treated: most were steamed, roasted or flash cooked purely because this way their inherent properties (at least the hero nutrient) would have been made soluble enough to digest. The wringing was always either done with hand or in a natural pestle mortar, this ensures that the soluble fibre isn’t lost (which happens when you use a mixie today); and last not the least, each of the ingredients would blend into each other creating a multi-layered and flavoured dish that could work on many fronts beginning with the tastebuds.”

Fascinatingly, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “it is in the tastebuds where most magic happens. As one of the neuro centres of information, the brain often relies heavily on the output the tongue sends to the brain. And interestingly, in chutney case – be it raw and mashed, tempered, or cooked – the first signal to the brain is of a food that is easy to digest and has a taste. The result, while the right brain begins the process of digesting it immediately thus releasing the energy and nutrients to various part of the body including the chest areas for which most chutneys use warm spices like pepper, ginger, and cumin; a part of it also reaches to the brain to manage the wear and tear. This initial prep work ensures that the system is ready enough to take on any calorie dense food and break it into soluble nutrients.”

While that explains why chutneys were made an indispensable part of a lot of composite meals like pakoras, parathas, biryani and such – “the use of raita or dahi chutney also is to ensure the gut is ready for any power nutrient crunching, while the coolness ensure minimum acid reflux in the body” says Bhassin -  the way chutney gets assimilated in the body shows how effective their composition to wellness is, say the experts, who find the savoury (especially sour), spicy chutneys work better as ‘solo’ during summers rather than just the sweet one, which need the other for effectiveness.

It is this complex working which results in a well-run system of the body is what we as eaters, says Chef Gorai, “often identify as a good food or a satiating meal – a fact that is stored that the brain remembers that we call ‘nostalgia’ and every time you eat something with the same kind of palate feel the whole process is followed that leaves you feeling full and happy.”

And it all begins with one small action of puckering up. So next time you have a chutney or make one…