The first time I ate “plastic,” it was at Gaggan in Bangkok. Chef Gaggan Anand made cute packets of see-through bags stuffed with spiced nuts, a clever take on a Desi habit of snacking on masala-coated dried fruits as one of his courses. The edible plastic sheets were made out of crispy rice paper, while at Avartana, a progressive South Indian restaurant in Chennai, they use translucent beetroot paper to wrap a square of Uthukuli butter to be served with a gravy and Malabar parotta.
Edible plastic is not unheard of, especially at haute cuisine restaurants. But there exists an authentic Bengali dish which serves pieces of plastic lookalike in the form of a chutney and it is at least eight decades old in the Indian kitchen. The raw papaya-based condiment that adds a sour element to a Bengali thali got its name from its see-through color and malleable texture.
What piques my attention is how in a conscious world that is fast moving towards plastic-free alternatives, here’s a chutney that stands proud for its resemblance to plastic. “It didn’t exist during my grandma’s time, but I remember it became a big wedding food sensation when I was growing up,” says 80-year-old home chef Iti Misra from Kolkata. Misra first introduced me to this dish at her Bengali Bhoj pop-up at The Bombay Canteen in 2018 and ever-since the dish lived on my palate memory.
Unlike other Indian chutneys that dot chaats or are plated in a thali along with a dozen others, plastic chutney is a palate cleanser that comes right at the end of the meal. Once the mains have been polished off, and right before the dessert arrives. While the Bengalis eat it on its own, personally, I’ll even plonk a spoonful on amaranth crackers and blistered cherry tomatoes cooked with kalonji to make a Gram-able Indian canapé.
“It is also a digestive, since the acidic nature of lemon juice activates the gastric juices, especially after heavy proteins that a Bengali thali will usually serve,” Misra says. She admits that the real test of this chutney lies in the glassiness of the final dish. While she likes par-boiling the papaya before hand, for me, cutting the pieces of the fruit into equal thickness, so that they cook uniformly helps them get an even glossy tinge.
The end result should be simple: It’s not real plastic chutney if it doesn’t look like chopped pieces of a plastic bag, although I can guarantee it doesn’t taste like that. Not like I have ever tasted plastic before, unless you count some of my lockdown cookie recipe disasters. But that’s a story for another time. —Sonal Ved
- Prep time 20 minutes
- Cook time 20 minutes
- makes 2 cups chutney
raw green papaya, peeled and sliced with a mandoline and cut into 1/2-inch squares
1 1/2 tablespoons
freshly squeezed lemon juice
amba haldi (white turmeric), grated
- In a medium pan over medium heat, heat 1/3 cup water along with the sugar and salt and allow the sugar to melt. This should take about 4 to 5 minutes. Allow the syrup to bubble for at least 1 to 2 minutes more on medium flame.
- Take off any impurities or cloudiness that forms on the top of the water surface using a spoon to keep the liquid clear. This will contribute to a more translucent finish.
- Add the papaya slices to the bubbling sugar syrup, cover, and cook for 7 to 8 minutes over a low flame. Once the fruit softens (but isn't mushy), add raisins and lemon juice and give it a quick stir.
- Allow it to cook for another 5 to 7 minutes until some of the water has evaporated. The chutney should have moisture coating the papaya slices, and should not be too dry or too sticky.
- If too much water has evaporated in the process of boiling the liquid, or if it gets too thick, add water back into the pan, one teaspoon at a time.
- Once you get the desired consistency, turn off the flame. The chutney will thicken as it cools.
- Transfer into sterilized jars, and store in the refrigerator for up to a week.