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Taste of Life: When mango chutney defined culinary appreciation and appropriation

ByChinmay Damle
Jun 07, 2023 11:12 PM IST

Even though the British were familiar with the art of pickling since Roman times, the chutneys they encountered in India completely took them by surprise

Exploring other culinary cultures through eating or cooking is a sign of culinary appreciation. Many a time this can lead to the creation of incredible fusion dishes. However, there is a thin line between culinary appreciation and appropriation.

Even though the Europeans living in India had adapted and incorporated several Indian dishes in their meals, “native” cuisine was sometimes stereotyped as inferior, unsanitary, or foreign. (REPRESENTATIVE IMAGE)

The “Poona Observer” on March 9, 1876, reported a curious incident which took place at the Sadar Bazaar in Poona. A European lady, whose husband ran a tailoring shop, visited the bazaar to buy some groceries when she came across a “native gentleman” selling “mango chutney” in jars. Curious, she bought one.

The next day, she went to a European store located on the Main Street and informed the manager that the “native gentleman”, she had purchased the mango chutney from, had been purchasing chutney from their store and selling it in dirty jars after removing certain “stuffs”.

The newspaper reported that the store manager approached the sanitation department and lodged a formal complaint. The chutney seller was summoned by the authorities. Upon investigation, the officials found that the man was selling chutney made by his wife. He had never set foot inside the European shop and his religion forbade him from eating anything cooked or touched by Europeans. The chutney he sold and the one sold by the European store were similar, but not the same. The officers asked the man to use clean jars for chutney and let him go.

The “Poona Observer” did not elaborate on the kind of chutney the “native gentleman” was selling. However, I suspect that it was “methamba”, a sweet and spicy raw mango relish which contained fenugreek seeds, jaggery, red chilli, and sometimes cashews, and was popular in western India.

Even though the British were familiar with the art of pickling since Roman times, the chutneys they encountered in India completely took them by surprise. They were not only delicious, but also could withstand a long sea journey and add variety to the diet of both passengers and crew.

In the early seventeenth century, the expanded British presence on the Indian subcontinent relied on preserved foodstuffs such as lime pickles, chutneys, and marmalades. Fruit chutneys (chopped fruits in spicy sugar syrup) were shipped to European countries as luxury goods in ceramic jars. These were called “mangoed” fruits or vegetables, which also contained unripe peaches and melons as a favourite ingredient, the word “chutney” still being associated with the lower working class. These items soon served as references and examples of condiments that were made locally and suited the Western palate. Generally, these chutneys were fruit, vinegar, and sugar cooked down to a reduction.

During the nineteenth century, many families spent time in India and the colonies, acquiring an interest in oriental food. It must have been very frustrating when they came home and were unable to get hold of the “exotic” fruits and vegetables needed for their newly discovered recipes. No wonder, tinned chutneys became quite a rage once they were introduced.

British and European manufacturers marketed imitations of Indian chutney recipes under the brand names Bengal Club, Colonel Skinner’s, and Major Grey’s Mango Chutney, a condiment made with raisins and lime juice and sold in England and Singapore.

By the mid-1800s, Anglo-Indians were serving chutney with curry at formal dinners and in restaurants as a stimulating dressing for meats and salads and accompanying plates of fruit and cheese. British factories boiled down apples, pears, or mangoes and mixed them with onions, raisins, sugar, and vinegar to make chutneys. The store-cupboard chutneys needed substantial quantities of salt, sugar, vinegar, and oil to preserve them. In India, chutneys were ground in a mortar. The natives preferred chutneys made fresh every day. They were eaten as an accompaniment to rice and some not overly spicy meat or vegetable dishes.

Mango chutney usually meant chutney made from mangoes. Characteristically, mango chutney was generally classified as: sliced (Colonel Skinner chutney and Major Grey chutney), semi-sliced (Bengal Club Chutney), and ground (Tirhoot chutney, Cashmere chutney).

The mango chutney was considered fine to go with fish, steak, oysters, or games of any kind. It was considered the perfect foil for curry dishes. The sweet offset the heat in curry powder, while the mango complemented the meats in the sauce. Meat Glassy or Fruity Meat was basically a sweet mango meat curry. The addition of mango chutney reduced the spiciness of the curry. Major Grey’s mango chutney or Bolts Mango Chutney was normally used in this dish.

Legend has it that a British army officer by the name of Major Grey, who lived in Colonial India in the nineteenth century, loved curries so much he made his own chutney using mango, raisins, vinegar, lime, onion, sugar, and spices. This is where some believe the classic mango chutney originated from.

Warren Gleason, in his article “Goldfish and Major Grey”, published in the magazine “MotorBoating” in September 1933, wrote – “Once upon a time, in India, or Indjah, as we say in London, there was stationed, presumably with his Mawjesty’s Royal Scots Knobby Knees or else the Queen’s Own Limehouse Lancers, I forget which, a certain Major Grey”.

According to Gleason, this major was a big fellow with a red face. His body lines resembled those of barge construction; as he got older he got fatter. “I know this to be a fact, though I never say the gentleman,” Gleason writes, “For he knew what was good to eat. And he must have had a kindly face and a generous disposition, for he was willing to pass the word along”.

However, mango chutney was popular among Indians for several centuries and Major Grey seems to have simply come up with his variation. He certainly did not “invent” the dish as many believe. In fact, there is no proof of the existence of a Major Grey who lived in India and cooked mango chutney. The story might be apocryphal and the name might have been used by the manufacturers of the chutney, Cross & Blackwell, to lend some “authenticity” to the dish.

In 1830, Edmund Crosse and Thomas Blackwell purchased the food company West and Wyatt and renamed it Crosse & Blackwell. Major Grey’s Mango Chutney was their signature dish. It was immensely popular in the colonies as well as in the US in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They had a branch in Poona and their advertisements featured Major Grey’s Mango Chutney prominently.

The European lady who complained about the “adulterated” chutney might have confused “methamba” with Major Grey’s Mango Chutney. Both the dishes look and taste eerily similar.

Even though the Europeans living in India had adapted and incorporated several Indian dishes in their meals, “native” cuisine was sometimes stereotyped as inferior, unsanitary, or foreign.

Culinary appropriation often creates further division within racialised groups. It is a complex issue related to race, identity, and commercialisation. It often degrades other cultures’ legacies with traditions inherited over generations. Even though appropriation is inevitable during the culinary exchange, one should be mindful that culinary appreciation is needed in a diverse society.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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