South 'Indie' Cilantro Chutney

By • January 13, 2013 0 Comments

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Author Notes: You know that sweet and spicy, mildly addictive green chutney served at your typical Indian restaurant?

This is NOT that chutney.

If restaurant-style green sauce is the ubiquitous Starbucks of the Indian chutney world, this South "Indie" chutney is your alternative coffee shop - the kind that serves pourover coffee in reusable cups, with small-batch pastries that run out before noon.

Don't get me wrong. There is an essential time and place for Starbucks: when you're craving caffeine en route to a 6:40am flight; when you specifically want a Tall Skinny Macchiato and nothing else will do; when you're jonesing for a standardized cup of joe in the middle of Podunk, USA.

Likewise, when you are contemplating crispy samosas or pakoras, or stirring up some bhel puri, good old Starbucks style green sauce is what you need. Its comfortable taste makes it a crowd-pleaser; jars of it are even popping up in the "ethnic" section of your local Whole Foods.

But if you're looking for something, say, off the beaten track - a chutney that eschews chains; that tastes ridiculously complicated despite taking mere minutes to prepare; that's guaranteed to make your friends puzzle "What's IN this?" as they proceed to spoon up more - South Indie Cilantro Chutney is your guy.

This bright green chutney is a tease. It dances on your tongue with complex layers of flavor...sweet, salty, tart, sour, spicy. You realize a little of it goes a long way, but you inexplicably find yourself wanting a lot.

This chutney (Tamil name: "thokku") is traditional home fare in Chennai, South India. It's a matter-of-fact staple in my parents' home: As we happy eaters scarf down homemade, Michelin-worthy curries and rice, my mom will casually pipe up, "Want some thokku?" It's a rhetorical question; the answer is always yes.

This chutney pairs perfectly with two South Indian dietary staples, yogurt and rice. And that's how I recommend you first try it: Take a spoon of rice mixed with yogurt, dip it in a tiny bit of chutney, and be prepared for a unique and oddly addictive taste experience.

Once you graduate from there, this chutney is like that wild best friend who's always dragging you into crazy adventures. Try it with sliced Golden Delicious apples. Stuff it into pitted Medjool dates. Add it to buttered and spiced sweetcorn. Mix with cream cheese and spread on toast. Dip sweet potato fries with it. Stir it into sauteed veggies and rice noodles for a gourmet-tasting dinner. Oh chutney, can I count the ways I love thee?

Unsurprisingly, my mom is the best thokku maker in the whole wide world, and I present to you a very-lightly-tweaked version of her recipe. Once you have the ingredients, which you can find at your local Indian or natural foods store (see pictures), it's really a cinch to prepare. Even I can make it in less than 10 minutes.

Recipe note:
One ingredient, asafoetida, deserves special mention. I could probably write an entire post on this durian-esque spice. Native to Afghanistan, this dried plant resin - apart from its purported medicinal effects in aiding digestion - adds salty-sour dimension to certain Indian foods. Despite smelling horrible (it's nicknamed "devil's dung" for a reason), it's completely edible and natural. A pinch is all you need. That said, if the pungent smell puts you off, just omit it.


Makes 1/2 cup of chutney

  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro - the largest bunch you can find
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2–3 Medjool dates, pitted (or, for traditional version, 1 tbsp tamarind paste
  • 1 sliced small green chili (adjust to your spice tolerance - or de-seed and de-stem for a tamer version)
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 11/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • 11/2 tablespoon sesame oil (unrefined is traditional; can sub with toasted)
  • 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar (jaggery if you have it)
  • 1 teaspoon crushed, dried red chilies (adjust to spice tolerance)
  • tiny pinch of asafoetida (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  1. Wash and stem cilantro leaves. Place into a food processor (or blender) container, along with the green chili(es), dates, jaggery/brown sugar and salt.
  2. In a small pan, dry-roast the fenugreek seeds on medium heat until they turn golden brown. Let them cool, then crush the roasted seeds into powder (use a coffee grinder or a mortar or pestle.) Set the powder aside for later.
  3. Heat the sesame oil on medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the black mustard seeds. When they start to crackle and pop (be careful!) add the fenugreek powder. Add the turmeric, tiny pinch of asaefoetida and crushed dried chilies. This goes fast, so have your ingredients ready! Let the powders sizzle for a little bit without burning (less than a minute). Add to the blender container with the cilantro leaves.
  4. Blend or process. You may need to add a bit of water to help things along. The ideal chutney texture is thick and rough, with visible flecks of dates and seeds. But feel free to thin out to your preference.
  5. Taste, and adjust sugar/salt as needed.
  6. Serve traditionally as an accompaniment to plain yogurt and/or Basmati rice - or however your heart desires! I personally love it as a sandwich or cracker spread (with cream cheese!), or as a dip for crisp-sweet apples. Or on top of a baked sweet potato.

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