By Ananya Bhardwaj
Chutneys have been the staple accompaniment to Indian cuisine for a long time. Whether it is pudina, tomato, mango, imli or coconut chutney, no meal is ever complete without them and becomes whole only after a dollop of chutney served on the side. On the day when karela or tinda is cooked at home, it is this simple sidekick that often saves the day.
The connection between Chhattisgarh and chutneys
Chhattisgarh has elevated the status of chutney to a brand new stature. In 2010, as part of his visit to India, Michelin Star holder Chef Gordon Ramsey planned on visiting Chhattisgarh and went to the Bastar region to sample its local cuisine. The region is famous for having a forest area in Chhattisgarh that is densely populated by tribals. The tribal people have historically adapted and modified their lifestyle in accordance with the resources provided by the forest. Even their food preparation and customs reflect their living style. The people here cherish and are proud of the ‘Chapda Chutney’ and ‘Dona Pudga’.
It is often rumoured that the spice factor of the chutney is extremely pungent and its sharpness is as intense as an ant bite. This is justifiable since the chutney is made from red ants and the eggs laid by them. The red ant chutney is one of the rather famous dishes of the Indian cuisine that is dubbed as a must try for all food connoisseurs.
What makes it special
The reasoning behind why this chutney is indigenous to Chhattisgarh is because red ants are found in abundance in the jungles of Bastar. Local tribes hailing from Chhattisgarh do not perceive them as a menace or a nuisance. They have learnt to utilise them to make a chutney which is termed as “Chapra ki Chutney”. The name ‘chapra’ literally translates to a basket made from leaves and refers to the nests made by ants that they create out of the leaves from the sal tree. Although it sounds rather odd, this dish is quite popular and is an indispensable accompaniment to all the feasts in the geographical area.
The preparation of the chutney is rather interesting. Red ants are collected from the nests along with the eggs laid by them and are mashed and dried. After that, the dry version of the chutney is prepared by mixing salt, sweeteners, ginger, coriander, and chillies with the rest of the mixture. This chutney is sold by the tribals in small marketable packets. The chutney may give a tough time to one’s palate initially. The formic acid sourced from ants mixes with the seasonings and thus gives this chutney its characteristic pungent hotness but it is found to have medicinal and beneficial properties. Even Gordon Ramsay found it appetising despite its sour taste. Owing to the popularity of the chutney, hunting for red ant nests has become a favourite hobby of youngsters in the area.
Chapda chutney is made from red ant, and it is considered to be not only healthy but also preventive in a limited quantity, since it keeps diseases away. Dona Pudga is a dish in which the chicken is seasoned with basic herbs and spices, then wrapped in a leaf, and subsequently roasted over a fire. It is even healthier since no oil is used in cooking. Red ants contain valuable proteins and this tribe has put this virtue to good use. This chutney supplements the body with essential proteins and calcium. It is also an optimal source of zinc, which is good for the boost of one’s immunity system. Vitamin B12, essential for the development of a healthy brain and the nervous system, is also found in these ants. The consumption of red ant chutney helps one to battle depression, fatigue, and develops strong memory.
Ramsay’s tour to Chhattisgarh
Upon the suggestion of his assistant Sarah, Gordon Ramsay travelled deep in the Naxal-prone region of Bastar and stayed there for around 3 days. It was during his residence there that he tasted the Chapda chutney alongside a local form of alcohol dubbed ‘Mahua’, and was completely enamoured by this dish.
This came into being because Ramsay was travelling across the expanse of India for his documentary on Indian food. He ended up dedicating twelve whole minutes to these dishes in his documentary and termed Chapda chutney as ‘the world’s best chutney’ and approved both the dishes as being healthy. He travelled in the Naxal-prone region of Darba’s Manjhipal on a bullet motorcycle.
During his stay, he learned more about the relevance of the red ant in the region. Ramsay’s 16-member team devoured this food too. Famous and esteemed tour guide of Manjhipal, Mr Rajnish Panikar made the arrangements and accommodations for the chef’s stay. Panikar later told that his wife, who was a native of Bastar, had herself prepared these dishes for Ramsay, and the chef got hooked on to them.
It would have been hard to imagine that a chutney could mean a lot more than a humble accompaniment to the cuisine. The challenge to the reader is to sample the chutney and go on a gastronomic adventure whenever he visits Chhattisgarh.
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