Tale of the humble yet unavoidable 'chammanthi'

dry-chilli-chammanthi
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A bowl of piping hot kanji (rice gruel) with spicy coconut chammanthi and roasted pappadam are enough for any Keralite to shoo away the seasonal flu or cold. This iconic combo often ignites beautiful memories of nostalgia. There is a popular saying in Kerala that the perfect chammanthi or chutney is a lofty philosophy where joy and sorrow merges. The Malayalam lexicon describes chammanthi as a pounded and mashed mixture of various ingredients. More than the meaning, chammanthi is all about the perfect flavours and ingredients.

People of every state in India love to claim ownership over the humble chutney. But no one really knows where or when did the chutney origin. A few historians claim that chutney originated in the South Asian countries.

Meanwhile, noted food historian K T Achaya assumes that the chutney originated on the Indus valley. He made this assumption as arakallu or stone grinders were excavated from the archaeological site of the Indus valley civilization. There is no evidence from anywhere else in the world that stone grinders were used before the Indus valley civilization.

Interestingly, chammanthi is such a versatile dish that you could whip up a delicious chutney by just smashing some chillies and salt. It is assumed that our ancestors made chutney even before ingredients like coconut, shallots, and coriander leaves became popular in the country. Chutneys made using a variety of ingredients are part of cuisines in most parts of India. The traditional coriander chutney in Nepal and the special chutney made by the Japanese belong to the same family.

There is a belief that the chutney was born around 500 BC. It was the rampant colonization in the 15th and the 16th centuries that took chutney to the Americas and Africa. There are documents that state that chutney was imported as a luxury food item to England in the 17th century.

Major Grey and Bengal Club were the two prominent chutney brands that excited the taste buds in Europe and the rest of the world. The word chutney was mostly used by the people who belonged to the lower rungs of society. Meanwhile, the aristocrats and the English called it 'mangoed' vegetables.

The Malayalam word chammanthi is believed to be an elision of the Sanskrit term 'sambandi' which means accompaniment. Though the word 'chammanthi' is used in Tamil as well, it is popularly known as karuthavaiyyal. The English word 'chutney' too is believed to have its origins in Sanskrit. Some historians say that it came from the word 'chathani' which means crushed.

Chillies, salt, ginger, and garlic are the most common ingredients that are used to make chutney in India. Meanwhile, coconut and mustard seeds are used in chutneys only in the South Indian states. Every Indian state has its unique recipe for chutneys. Fruits like papaya and pineapple are used in Bengal while ripe guavas are a popular ingredient in chutneys in Gujarat. Interestingly, Kerala is the only state in India where fish is added in chutneys.

When Telugu screen icon Chiranjeevi decided to open a restaurant chain which is based in Hyderabad, he and his partners could not think of any other name than 'Chutneys' which is one of the most popular dishes in the southern states.

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