Sour Treats From The Bengali Kitchen

Someone asked me on Twitter recently, what is the difference between Chutney and Ombol in Bengali cuisine? Now, I haven’t faced a trickier question as of late, since the culinary vocabulary in Bengali is enormous and often consists of very subtle variations. To the best of my knowledge, Chutney is a sauce/condiment, savoured as a side to main courses and it might entirely sweet/salty/spicy; while an Ombol/Tawk is one of the key elements in a Bengali meal that is mandatory to consist of a sour ingredient (lime/tamarind or a sour fruit). I admit that a culinary historian/expert would be best suited to explain the differences between these, but all I can say is – Chutney is a very late entrant into the Bengali cuisine. It was all about Ombol in the earlier centuries with the idea that a mildly sweet-mostly sour item at the end of the menu would act as a digestive to regular meals.

Tomato Chutney
Photo Courtesy: Pratik Sengupta

The important point about Chutney/Ombol in Bengali cuisine is that, we don’t eat them as a side to other dishes, but it’s a wholesome food item in itself. A dessert would follow later than Ombol in any Bengali menu. Even in weddings these days, Chutney/Ombol has a great priority and in many families it takes a lot of time to decide on the menu as people have different favourites. I had a friend in college who dreamt once that she was being served various chutneys in huge steel containers at a wedding and they wouldn’t stop coming. My husband M is a Chutney/Ombol lover and often asks one variant or the other out of the blue on weekends. I’m a little inclined to the other side though, in a sense that I don’t dislike them, but I can’t ingest any sour food in large quantities. I prefer Chutneys as they are more on the sweet/salty/spicy side than sour Ombols. Here are a few different varieties of these sour treats from our huge cuisine that you can try easily at home.

Anarosh er Chutney (Pineapple Chutney) –

This is one of my favourites as its not overtly sour and doesn’t need any exotic ingredient. The Pineapple Chutney is one of the old favourites from Bengali weddings too, albeit in the older decades. It’s almost serendipity that I was making this yesterday and it reminded me of all the other chutneys that I can share here.

How to: 

Chop pineapple into very small dices. To 1t mustard oil in a wok, add a pinch of mustard seeds and 1 whole dried red chilli. When the mustard sputters, add the diced pineapple and sautè. In a minute or so, add 1t grated ginger, 1t salt, 1/2 t turmeric powder and mix well. Add water and let the pineapple cook. Add about 4t sugar/jaggery according to taste. Garnish with 1/2t roasted cumin powder and 1t lemon juice. Serve cold.

Aam er Ombol (Green Mango Ombol) – 

The absolute saviour in scorching summer. The ultimate coolant after a heavy meal. This one’s a die-hard summer favourite and a seasonal thing. In my childhood, summer meant an abundance of green mangoes, the sour variety that wouldn’t ripe and was used for Ombol/Tawk. Now, this is a very homely item and still a staple for Indian summers, but doesn’t feature in a wedding menu. This is our comfort Ombol – the runny liquid/gravy is to be slurped from the bowl after you have devoured the tangy and tender mango slices.

Caution: This one induces high quality siesta.

How to: 

Cut the green mango into thick slices. To 1t mustard oil in a wok, add a pinch of panchforan and 1 whole dried red chilli. Add the mango slices and fry a little. In a minute or so, add 1t salt, 1/2 t turmeric powder and mix well. Add enough water and let the mango cook. Add about 3t sugar or according to taste. Garnish with 1/2t roasted cumin powder/Bhaja moshla and serve cold.

Tomato’r Chutney – 

This is the most common of the lot in my generation and has become a comfort food. Very slightly soured with lemon juice, with a little tang from tomatoes and sweetness from dates, it’s an amazing melange of tastes. Tomato chutney is a staple in all vegetarian meals during any festival these days, especially among the Bhog served to gods. The flavour of Bhaja moshla is so well incorporated with the amsotwo and dates that it gives an all encompassing pujo feeling to me.

How to: 

Chop tomatoes into very small dices and halve a few dates. To 1t mustard oil in a wok, add a pinch of panchforan and 1 whole dried red chilli. Add the diced tomatoes and sautè. In a minute or so, add 1t salt, 1/2t turmeric powder, 1/2t red chilli powder and mix well. Add the halved dates, a handful of soaked raisins and a little aamsotwo (dried mango pulp). Add water and let it cook. Add about 4t sugar or according to taste. Garnish with 1/2t roasted cumin powder/Bhaja moshla and 1t lemon juice. Serve cold.


Pnepe’r Plastic Chutney (Green Papaya Chutney) – 

An enigma to most of us in childhood, Plastic chutney evoked an awe about the nomenclature, primarily. What and how did it evolve, I sincerely have no idea. But Plastic chutney was a rave feature in Bengali weddings in the ’80s and ’90s. The sheer and almost transparent pieces of cooked green papaya gave it the look of little bits of plastic. Cooked in large quantities at weddings, it appeared like a gigantic steel container of shimmering transparent plastic. All romanticism aside, the Plastic Chutney tastes lovely too, slightly sour and abundantly sweet. I had this probably after decades this year at my SIL’s wedding. The fun part was when the groom’s family (from Uttar Pradesh) kept guessing the ingredient behind this chutney and most came up with Gourd (Lauki).

How to: 

Slice the green papaya into thin ribbon slices. Add 5t sugar in water and make a syrup. When the syrup appears clear, add the papaya slices, cover and cook. Squeeze about 2t lime juice into the chutney. Cook till the syrup thickens and becomes uniform. Garnish with cashew nuts. Serve chilled.

These were just very few of the bountiful sour treats in Bengali cuisine and I intend to write an entire series based on the ones I’ve heard about or tasted. Just to give a teaser, there are chutneys made with fish as well and they are equally amazing in taste!

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