Noodle

Why My Indian Peanutty Noodles Are Worth Fighting Over

Behind the magic peanut chutney that's so good, it causes family feuds.

November 27, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

You might call it peanut butter; I call it peanut chutney.

“It starts off coarse, but becomes peanut butter as soon as it lands on your tongue,” a friend of mine, a Puerto Rican food truck owner, said to me after his first taste of peanut chutney, a dry Indian condiment made from roasted peanuts that are crushed to a granular powder, then mixed with various spices.

I like to do this in the blender, whirred till the peanuts secrete oil. My eldest uncle grumbles that blenders (called “mixers” in India) have destroyed today’s peanut chutneys. Apparently, the authentic taste is lost when the nuts aren’t ground in a mortar and pestle. To which my aunt retorts cheekily, “How can men appreciate anything unless the woman has shed sweat for it?” She felt that the benefits of our wonder gadgets far outweighed the loss in the chutney's taste, if any.

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And she may be right. Whether you grind the nuts in a mortar and pestle or whir it in a blender like a 21st-century hussy, with the simple additions of cumin, chile powder, and a pinch of salt, what you end up with is a gorgeously spiced Indian “peanut butter” that’s as versatile as it is addictive to eat.

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Top Comment:
“Peanutty???? For god's sake, hire an editor over the age of 5 who knows how to control writers from putting "y's" on every friggin' food!”
— Jackie
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If a chutney is meant to heighten the flavor and taste of the dishes it accompanies, then this one must be something else entirely. Because I can eat gobs of it on its own, to the point where an onlooker might wonder whether it’s the main dish or the condiment. If you are using it as a condiment, then it’s great atop your favorite savory oatmeal, spread on your morning toast, or even as a crunchy, peanutty, protein-rich addition to salads and pastas.

In India, it may be even simpler.

Imagine a farmer sitting down for lunch under a tree. Peanut chutney accompanies coarse sorghum bread and red onion as an afternoon lunch for this farmer, who lives in Maharashtra, a state in western India. He pours some oil over the fiery-orange condiment, breaks off a chunk of the bread—called bhakri—stirring together the oil and ground peanuts. Using the bread, he scoops up the chutney and tears off a piece of red onion. This rural onion is small, the size of a key lime, and is neither peeled nor chopped. The farmer whacks the onion with the base of his palm, splitting it into two, so he can eat a layer with every bite of peanutty bread.

No cutting board, no knife, no tears.

In my family, hailing from the eastern part of Maharashtra, peanut chutney is so beloved that we have absolutely no qualms about fighting over it. It’s expected, even.

It’s well-known in my family, for instance, that my father gets hangry and likes to hover over the table while it’s being set for dinner. For occasions like this, my mom always has peanut chutney ready. She sets it on the table, and he makes a well inside the small mound of chutney, pours oil into it, mixes the oil and chutney with a piece of roti—and peace is restored in the world.

Kids in the family have also come to love peanut chutney. Every time my niece comes home from college, her grandmother sends her back with a parcel of chutney; it helps her ride the sub-par food in the dorms. When the sabji is overcooked and the dal is watery, at least she can eat the chutney with roti. Another niece has to hide it from her friends, and one more has survived on peanut chutney and roti alone for almost two years during a fussy eating phase.

Peanut chutney has served everyone well over the years, which explains its high value. But it's never more valuable than when you're on the road.

Every couple of years or so, my family takes a trip in and around India. Often a combination of road, train, and plane travel, this trip is a chance for us to visit a new state or region of the country and spend a few days together. Food is an imperative part of these travels. My mother-in-law prepares her over-sized bag of homemade, travel-friendly goodies after slogging for days before the trip. Once we set out, she keeps a watchful eye on this bag—otherwise the packs would descend and everything would be gone within the first two days.

Peanut chutney is, of course, one of these prized goodies.

One of the great joys (and jokes) of such trips is the everyday hustling, horse-trading, score-keeping, bargaining, and fighting with each other—fighting over the snacks, that is. The ultimate goal is to extract the most goodies from my mother-in-law as possible. To paint a picture for you, here’s how it usually goes: We’re on a particularly long stretch of road (in our charter bus), and the youngest niece pronounces that she is hungry. Who would resist the call of a child's hunger?

Puri (deep-fried whole-wheat bread) and peanut chutney are taken out to feed the cub—but of course, everyone else smells the sweet nutty aroma and crowds around to demand their own share. As my mother-in-law hands out a couple puris with mounded peanut chutney to people, the hustle begins.

“I slept yesterday, so didn’t get any,” says one sibling. “I deserve more than two.”

Another pipes in, “But you had four the previous day, so technically you should not be getting any today.”

The third butts in, “Mom, you must be so exhausted with all these wolves hovering around you. Why don’t I carry your bag today?” This is met by a steely glare from my mother-in-law. And on and on this goes.

Toward the end of our Nepal trip earlier this year, what transpired between my nephew and his grandmother we may never know, but the bag of peanut chutney was awarded to him, and nobody got a single spoonful thereafter.

As you can see, peanut chutney is super travel-friendly due to its dryness and lightness. It’s the perfect portable meal for overnight train journeys from Mumbai to interior Maharashtra. I go to India at least once a year, so it’s a must-have in my return bags every time. (One of my aunts’ tricks is to slip in a tiny pouch of religious powder to ward off customs; the end goal is to get the chutney across, at all costs.)

At home, I use my mother’s trick to make a quick, doctored-up version of the peanut chutney as a sidekick to dosa (savory, South Indian crepes made from rice and split black gram), especially when there’s no time to make fresh coconut chutney. It’s a fast meal I rely on often, for which I riff off of her method: I take plain yogurt, some peanut chutney, then mix in finely diced red onions and chopped cilantro. I warm up a pita bread in the oven and eat it with this dressed-up chutney. It’s divine.

If a chutney is meant to heighten the flavor and taste of the dishes it accompanies, then this one must be something else entirely. Because I can eat gobs of it on its own, to the point where an onlooker might wonder whether it’s the main dish or the condiment.

Another very delicious thing I like to do: Indian peanutty noodles. I got the idea one night after eating pad thai, which had coarsely chopped, roasted peanuts in it. A fusion of vegetable-packed noodles and the peanut chutney, this simple dish is perfect for busy weeknights. You can use your favorite noodles (I go with udon or sometimes soba), and add whatever vegetables you have on hand. The real star is the chutney, anyway. Its sweet creaminess cuts through the savory pungency of the soy sauce–laden noodles, resulting in a delightful meal that tastes even better with red chile garlic sauce.

I can tell you right now, my peanut chutney noodles will be the topic of discussion the next time I go to India. My eldest uncle especially won’t be happy that I’ve veered yet again into the realm of convenience, away from the mortar-and-pestle way of things...

What's the one dish or condiment your family fights over? Share any funny stories in the comments below.

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17 Comments

Jean H. December 2, 2018
Loved, loved, loved this story of finagling for food on a trip with LOTS of family. Grammar be damned, and receipe be made!
 
Author Comment
Annada R. December 3, 2018
Thank you, Jean! Our family trips are so much fun because of these haggling and negotiating.
 
Jackie November 29, 2018
Peanutty???? For god's sake, hire an editor over the age of 5 who knows how to control writers from putting "y's" on every friggin' food!
 
Miriam G. November 30, 2018
Would you prefer 'Peanuttie,' Jackie? :) I'm eating a bowl full of this dish now, and it's definitely nutty, and yummy.
 
Author Comment
Annada R. December 2, 2018
Thank you Miriam! Makes me very happy that you tried it and liked it.<br />
 
Josee L. December 2, 2018
As long as y'all are on the topic of annoying writing habits, there are two that are particularly irritating to me. The first is "veggie". What is wrong with "vegetable", for heaven's sake? Why is a diminutive so often used when none is needed? The other is "hack", to mean a tip or trick or shortcut. Suddenly, everyone has been jumping on the bandwagon of that one. Maybe the next buzzword will be "hackie". Grrr....
 
Suzy's M. December 2, 2018
Go back to your cave
 
Miriam G. December 2, 2018
I’m going to make a big batch of the chutney and put into little containers for holiday gifts. Ignore people with “good” grammar but bad manners. Funny thing is, their writing is stylistically poor, with excessive exclamation marks and interjections.
 
Josee L. December 2, 2018
Please. There is no reason to be rude.
 
Leslye D. December 2, 2018
FYI, the correct placement of a period or comma is inside a second quotation mark. Example: “word.” I used to make this error myself. Just want to be helpful.
 
Josee L. December 2, 2018
Thank you for pointing it out. My mother language is not English, so I did not know that. And I always appreciate when someone lets me know about any error that I make. I will keep this one in mind from now on. :-)
 
Eric K. December 2, 2018
Hi Jackie, thank you for your feedback. I was the editor on this and am most definitely over 5 years old (but not by much!). :)<br /><br />At Food52 we believe in neologisms, for sure, and I'll do my best to make sure we don't overdo it! The word "peanutty," however, is cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as: "1. fig. N. Amer. Small, insignificant, trivial; (also) stupid." The first instance of this usage was in 1872. The second definition, which can be tracked down to a 1902 issue of <em>The Southern Planter</em>, is: "2. Resembling or of the nature of peanuts; full of or tasting strongly of peanuts. Now the main sense."
 
Author Comment
Annada R. December 3, 2018
Peanut chutney as a holiday gift is a wonderful idea, Miriam! <br />
 
Miriam G. December 6, 2018
Agree!
 
Nikkitha B. November 28, 2018
I remember this chutney! It was amazing!
 
Eric K. November 29, 2018
The perfect desk-side snack.
 
Author Comment
Annada R. November 29, 2018
Thank you Nikkitha, Eric! Sitting here in India, I'm getting my fix :)