From quick-fix meals to being stars in their own right, from adding a layer of chutzpah to an ordinary meal to being imbued with healing properties, India’s chutney powders are culinary gems.
My introduction to chutney powders was with the ubiquitous gunpowder at a South Indian joint in Delhi way back in the latter part of the ’80s. I dipped a warm idli in the grainy roasted dal and spice mix, and was hit with so many flavours. It was addictive, the taste. I became a confirmed podi freak. And gunpowder became a staple in my trips to South Indian restaurants. It was only later that I came to realise that this wasn’t the only mix around – India had a wide variety of delicious chutney powders. I came across the delicate methkut at a meal in a restaurant in Dadar, the chennakai podi on my travels through Andhra Pradesh, and a flaxseeds chutney mix in Karnataka.
Almost every region in India has a variety of wet pastes or a dry powder mix that are eaten with boiled rice, chapati, idli, dosa, and with different kinds of indigenous breads. Podis have withstood the test of time. They’ve been a traditional staple in many Indian diets – they echo what our ancestors ate. Chutney powders are foundational to Southern and Western India’s cuisine. Traditionally, they are different combinations of dals, nuts, seeds, chillies, garlic, and sometimes spices like Asafoetida and fenugreek, roasted over a low heat until golden to release flavours and fragrance.
In Southern India, chutney powders are known as ‘podi’ or ‘pudi’. They are made from roasted and dried lentils, spices, seeds, nuts. They are aromatic, spicy, tangy, and protein rich and can be stored easily for two-three weeks. In southern Indian states, meals are incomplete without the chutney podi. For a quick fix meal, all that is needed is a crisp dosa, fluffy idlis or hot rice. Add the podi of your choice, some ghee and maybe a bowl of curd
There are so many varieties of podi (the dry chutney powder) that it’s difficult to keep count. These are all traditional recipes with a few tweaks customised to suit palates of each state. Chutney powders are like a side dish and can vary from a garnish to a dip for sliced raw vegetables like cucumbers. Podi/pudi can also be used to add flavour to dishes. If you are making a dry vegetable dish you can sprinkle some podi (especially a peanut one). I sometimes eat it on toast and butter, and a sprinkling of sugar.
Traditionally podis were ground with a crushing stone (made of solid granite stone), polished and carved to the shape required. The ingredients are usually roasted in oil (gingelly or peanut). Nowadays electric blenders and food processors are used. You can get pre-packed varieties of some podis in stores but it’s always best to make your own.
Among my favourites is the curry leaves chutney powder made with a bunch of curry leaves, lentils and whole spices – all roasted in oil and ground to a coarse powder.
Chennakai podi is a chutney powder made in the arid regions of Andhra. I got a packet from Hyderabad once. It is like a fiery much tastier version of peanut butter. This podi is made from roasted groundnuts or peanuts, dry red chilies, garlic and salt. I used to sprinkle this over toast, or steamed rice. If you roast the ingredients over a wood-fire you get a lovely smoky aroma.
In Andhra, kandi podi is popular. It is what the bland-palate Brits dubbed as ‘gunpowder’. It is made with equal measures of toor dal, moong dal, and chana dal, with red chillies and cumin seeds. All ingredients are dry roasted separately, cooled, and ground coarsely. It is best with dosa and idli and a dollop of gingelly (Sesami)oil.
Some podis are made with grated coconut, tamarind and jaggery added to the dals and then seasoned with mustard seeds, turmeric, and Asafoetida. Nalla Karam Podi is made by slow roasting red chililes, curry leaves, whole black gram dal, coriander seeds, tamarind and raw garlic.
Chutney powders are also a characteristic feature of Maharashtrian cuisine. There is nothing like a dash of hot and peppy dry garlic chutney or peanut chutney to jazz up a meal. My favourite is the methkut. Then there is popular shenga chutney powder. And the fiery garlic and chilli one that accompanies Mumbai’s favourite streetside food – the vada pav.
The healthiest chutney powders are probably the ones using seeds like flaxseeds, niger, linseed and sesame seeds. Like the jawas chutney of Maharashtra made with linseed. In rural Maharashtra many chutneys are prepared with oilseeds – linseed or flaxseed, niger and black sesame. Ellu Milagai Podi is a version of the popular gunpowder – it has a nutty flavour due to the roasted sesame seeds. The aali vithai podi is made with flaxseeds. So instead of sprinkling them over a bland porridge or toast, why not be a bit more adventurous and make a podi with added spices? It is an easy way to get your dose of nutritious seeds.
The next time you are travelling, make it a point to ask for these chutney powders – you can also pick up a few bottles for your kitchen. They can be excellent travel accompaniments – a quick-fix, no-cook shot of nutrition with pulses, seeds and nuts. And each one has excellent health-giving properties.