The Charms of the Emblematic Tomato Chutney

Although a late entry into the bhoger thali of Durga Puja, the popularity of the sweet, spicy, tangy date -tomato khatta rivals that of any other dish on the platter – and beyond

By Madhulika Dash; Photograph courtesy

If there is one meal that can teach you the essence of Durga Puja, it is the prasad thali that is served during the seventh and eighth day of the celebration in the respective pandal. Especially, points our Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotel) the one served during the Ashtami, which includes the famous khichudi, labda (in case of Odisha, it is ghanta), begun bhaja and the puckering kejur chutney made with dates, kismish and tomatoes. It is perhaps the finest form of culinary nirvana, and the one dish that you instantly fall for is the chutney. A rhapsody of sweet, spicy and tangy, it is the perfect ruse for puckering up.

While that lovable flavour play made the chutney an absolute must in the thali, much like khichudi, little is known about the origin of this beautiful piece of culinary art. In fact, adds Chef Dewan, “one often wonders what went into the minds of those who decided to take the tomato – an apple fruit as it resembled the colour – that arrived in our coast somewhere during the 16 th century with the Portuguese traders and eventually became a part of our culinary ledger, even leading to a dedicated dish that today is considered amongst the finest posterboys of Bengali (and Odia) food culture.”

So how did one of the most fascinating players of the bhog thali really come to shape? The answer, continues Chef Dewan, “lies somewhere between the brilliance of tomato as a vegetable and the culinary ingenuity of our ancestors who had already aced the art of making relishes and pickles. Or the art of building taste profiles, as we say in the culinary world.”

Contrary to the popular story of how chutneys were first created to cure Emperor Shah Jahan's jaded taste buds, the culture of creating pucker-worth dishes has been an ancient tradition employed by homemakers to either save precious produce from spoiling or to preserve them for enjoyment beyond their season of obtainability. In that sense, he adds, “the culinary minds of erstwhile kingdom of Bengal and Odisha were adept at working with produce that were not only predominantly sour, tangy, excessively sweet, delicate and even complicated with their natural flavour tones like tomatoes, but also pairing produces and spices to harvest flavours that could create maximise deliciousness.”

Tomatoes, given their natural flavour complexities – they are sweet, sour, tangy and even extremely khatta – presented a beautiful canvas to play with. And that’s exactly what our ancestors did by turning it into a relish that could brighten up any meal and be enjoyed in small quantity. But the plan of limiting tomato, which soon became a kitchen staple of flavourant along with onions, ginger and garlic, was a plan that went awry. Thanks to its natural deliciousness, tomato khatta as they call in Odisha soon transformed into a dish in itself – and be paired with rice, puri and puffed rice. The secret, says the seasoned chef, “was of course the umami in tomatoes that enhanced when cooked and even added to the appeal with the ingredients that went into it like the khejur, raisins and even raw mango.”

Historically, says culinary archiver Alka Jena (founder, CulinaryXpress), “the first phase of the chutney creation would have been the chakata, which uses the tomato in raw with onions, chilli, garlic and pickle oil thrown in. Cooking may have taken some time and would have started in the house of a zamindar or the like, who had the wherewithal to get ingredients that go into making the relish.”

In Odisha, it meant the khejur or seedless dates and in Bengal, meant the raisins, cloves, chillies and such, adds Jena, who feels that the chutney or khatta debut in Durga Puja would have been a Zamindar house contribution.

For Chef Dewan however, the likely heroes behind this Eastern Thali staple are the temple cooks, who are responsible for designing and developing the Bengali cuisine we know today. “The reason for my conviction is the use of traditional ingredients like ginger, clove, fennel and such to create the flavour and of course the iconic finishing with roasted, ground cumin. Of course, the ingenuity of layering taste strata is quintessentially temple style.”

No wonder, the recipe that according to experts may have developed between the 16 th and 17 th century – also a time when the bhoger thali was evolving – has little reason to change – and yet remains versatile enough to take on a few new additions without changing the palate balminess and puckering that the chutney or khatta is most known for.