Chutney is a condiment with a confusing identity. The chutneys you might buy in a supermarket are something like relish, something like jam. They're savory preserves, usually fruit-based, served as a complement to dishes like Indian curries.
Yet these preserved chutneys are not typical of the chutneys served in India. Indian chutneys can be made with a huge range of ingredients, from yogurt to peanuts. Some are smooth, some are chunky; some are cooked, some are raw; some are served as a condiment or dip, some are served as a side dish, and some are even served for breakfast. Even the meaning of the word chutney is unclear: I've seen it translated as "spicy," "lick", and "crushed," and I have no idea which is correct.
The unifying feature of traditional chutneys is that they were originally made by grinding fresh ingredients together. At one time, this might have been done with a mortar and pestle, but most cooks today would use a food processor.
Mint chutney, for example, is made by grinding mint, coriander, and green chili with yogurt. The fresh mint flavor makes it an ideal accompaniment for fried foods like samosas. Coconut chutney, which you might have for breakfast with steamed rice cakes called idli, is made by grinding grated coconut with lentils, tamarind, and spices. Peanut chutney is a paste of ground roasted peanuts and chilis, and provides a fiery kick to simple white rice.
These chutneys are diverse because Indian food varies so much from region to region, depending on local ingredients. Coconuts and peanuts both grow well in southern India, whereas mint grows in abundance in the north. Tomato chutney is common everywhere, but Bengali tomato chutney is sweet, thanks to the addition of dates or mangoes, and used to cleanse the palate between spicy and sweet courses, while Hyderabadi tomato chutney packs more heat thanks to dried chillies, and is served as a side dish with rice or flatbread.
Neither of those tomato chutneys contains vinegar—yet the tomato chutneys we find on our supermarket shelves usually do. Why? There's one obvious culprit: the British.
The British presence in India began in the early 17th century, with the establishment of the British East India Company. The British have a fondness for fruit preserves that dates back at least as far as the Tudors, according to food historian Ann Wilson, so it seems plausible that Britons returning from India would also bring back local flavors the best way they knew how: by preserving them. Because chutney is not meant to be overwhelmingly sweet, it would have made sense to preserve chutneys with both sugar and vinegar.
One recipe for "Indian Chutney" from a late 19th century British household journal calls for eight ounces of tomatoes, ten ounces of apples, eight ounces of brown sugar, and a pint and a half of vinegar. A "genuine Indian recipe" that appeared in Good Housekeeping around the same time also called for brown sugar, vinegar, and apples. Both recipes call for stirring the ingredients in a pot until they boil and break down, exactly like a jam. We can be sure neither recipe was truly Indian because apples weren't often grown in India at the time.
Apples may have become a common ingredient in British and American chutneys because they share a sweet, tart flavor profile with an ingredient that is common in Indian chutneys, but wasn't available in Britain or America—green mangoes. It's no coincidence that perhaps the most familiar chutney on supermarket shelves today is a mango chutney: Major Grey's.
We don't know who Major Grey was, or if he ever actually existed. The military name certainly evokes British Colonial India, but if there was ever an authentic Indian recipe, the major producers of Major Grey's chutney can't agree on it today. One popular version is made with tamarind, another with ginger, and another with neither.
While Major Grey's pretends to be Indian, many of the chutneys I grew up eating in England made no such pretense. A lot of British chutneys use winter fruits like apples and plums, while American chutneys might use cranberries or peaches, and Caribbean chutneys could use papayas and bananas.
What these chutneys have in common has nothing to do with India and everything to do with production—they're all made by boiling fruit and spices in sugar and vinegar. That combination of sugar-sweetness and vinegar-acidity has become the hallmark of preserved chutneys.
If you want to delve in to the world of traditional chutneys, you'll have to make your own, or visit a quality Indian restaurant. If you want to try preserved chutneys and you're not sure where to start, there are two broad options available to you.
The first option is to try chutneys like Major Grey's, which, while not in the style of traditional chutneys, are intended to complement Indian flavors. Complementary spices to look for on the label include turmeric, fenugreek, curry leaf, cardamom, and mustard seed. Tamarind provides a wonderful sour note. Hot chutneys pair well with creamy curries like korma or pasanda, or provide a boost to plain rice. Fruity chutneys pair well with hot curries, like madras or vindaloo. A zesty lime pickle or a spicy brinjal (eggplant) pickle makes a great start to an Indian meal served with poppadoms or naan bread.
Note that some brands will label their chutneys as "pickle" or "relish," perhaps to distinguish them from true Indian chutneys. Also be aware that chutneys labeled "sweet" aren't sweet like jam; there should always be a tartness to chutney.
Your second option are the chutneys that make no effort to appear Indian. The method of preservation used for Indian chutneys was never restricted to Indian flavors, so it's inevitable that any fruit preserved in sugar and vinegar is now called a chutney. These chutneys might be made with figs, berries, apples, quince, plums, rhubarb, peach, or apricot—really any fruit you can think of—and they're often made by small-scale producers. Once opened, a jar of chutney will last a few weeks in the refrigerator —check the label to be sure.
These types of chutney are best enjoyed with cheese, bread, or cold meats, which also makes them amazing in a sandwich (and especially in a grilled cheese) but also perfect for a picnic lunch.
Tart, zesty chutneys pair well with creamy cheeses. Apple chutneys are ideal with ham, and dark, plummy chutneys are perfect with strong cheddar, or rich meats like duck. You might even find an onion chutney, which can go with just about anything. You can of course use Indian chutneys the same way, and once you've tried mango chutney in a cheese sandwich you may never look back.