A ridiculously easy recipe for coconut chutney, a tiffin-time staple across South India.
Lakshmi’s “life started at 36”, when her two daughters had both started school and she was able to go out and get a job. Luckily for Lakshmi, her husband was liberal enough to allow her this freedom, many husbands would not be so lenient and their wives are stuck indoors. In Pondicherry, doorways are filled with beautiful sand mandalas, but these are just something to keep bored housewives occupied, Lakshmi explains bluntly.
Tiffin at Lakshmi’s
On a recent holiday to Kerala Lakshmi got tired of only being able to eat at restaurants and cafés. She wanted to be able to go into people’s kitchens and homes to see how they really lived and eat some proper home-cooked food. If this was how she felt as a tourist in Kerala, then surely tourists who come to her hometown of Pondicherry must feel the same, she thought. So, emboldened by her newly found confidence from her job at Sita Cultural Centre (and with the support of her husband), Lakshmi decided to open her home two nights’ a week to tourists who are in search of a more authentic cooking and dining experience.
When my sister and I go for ‘Tiffin at Lakshmi’s’ we spend an evening cooking several South Indian snacks. The coconut chutney I am sharing now is the easiest and most delicious of all the dishes we cooked. Coconut chutney is very common in the South of India and Sri Lanka and is usually eaten along with dosa, uttapam, idly and poori. These are all different types of light meals or snacks, otherwise known at tiffin in India.
The bridal dowry
Conversation flows freely in Lakshmi’s little kitchen, and time again the topics of marriage and education keep coming up. As we cook the coconut chutney, Lakshmi brings down a silver tin filled with seven different spices. The tin was a wedding present from her mother who recently died and a much treasured item. This is a traditional mother to daughter wedding present, the spices that fill the tin vary depending on what the mother thinks are the most important spices for their culinary repertoire.
Along with the spice tin, Lakshmi begun her married life with the all-important (and thankfully electric) grinders and blenders needed for the bi-weekly batches of idly batter and the daily spice blends. Other white goods were also part of the ‘package’- Lakshmi points out the fridge and other electrical items around the kitchen. These items were originally meant to be a present from the bride’s parents to their daughter to make their wifely duties easier, but over time it has become something that is demanded by the husband’s family as part of the dowry.
A future for her daughters
Lakshmi’s own marriage was arranged and, evident by the smile on her face when she talks about her husband, it has been a successful one. When it comes to talking about Lakshmi’s own teenage daughters, she is adamant that “finding a husband is secondary, the most important thing is education”. She hopes that after school they will be able to finish their education in the USA then find a job there. Her brother (who married for love and someone from a different caste, prompting lots of drama at the time) lives in Seattle with his (happily married) wife.
Lakshmi and her husband have made a deal with their daughters that like their uncle, they can choose to marry for love. But only so long as Lakshmi and her husband approve. If not, then the parents will find them a husband.
As we sit down to eat the feast of South Indian feast of idly, dosa, coconut chutney, sambar and other dishes, her husband joins us at the table for a short while before going out to pick up their daughters from some extra tutoring. When we say goodbye Lakshmi prepares us some paan, (a mouth freshener made from betal leaves, areca nut and a wide variety of other sweet delights) which is usually only eaten by men in India. As Laura and I leave the house with our cheeks filled with paan I am hopeful of what life will be like for the modern Indian woman.
Recipe for coconut chutney
- 1 grated coconut, or coconut milk
- 2 tbsp dal fry, or peanuts
- 2 green chillis
- large bunch of fresh coriander
- Water as needed
And for the final touch….
- fresh curry leaves
- mustard seeds
- cumin seeds
Place all the ingredients into a blender and blitz together into a paste. Add more salt, chilli, water (etc.) to taste. This chutney comes in various guises, from rather dry to very wet – so add as much water as you want.
All cooking in South India has a ‘final touch’, and this coconut chutney is no exception. Before serving fry some curry leaves, cumin seeds and mustard seeds in a little coconut oil and add to the chutney.