WHILE SOME PEOPLE make resolutions come the first of January, I spend the first day of the year resolutely cleaning out my refrigerator. Into the trash goes that date-nut loaf my dentist sends every year, the 19 rinds of leftover cheese, the half-bitten chocolates, the toffee-flavored eggnog and the moldering tangerines. Good riddance! Give me a glass of ice water, please, and maybe a rye cracker.
Of course, my new path to culinary asceticism lasts about a day before I grow hungry—not for the fruitcake or mixed nuts so common to the holiday season I’ve just endured, but something revivifying and exotic. Something I haven’t cooked in the last two months. And so much the better if it requires only a few minutes to prepare, and is gorgeous, delicious and ridiculously low in calories—as if such a food exists.
Turns out, it does. It’s chutney. No, not that unused jar of mango chutney you’ve had sitting in the refrigerator for seven years, but fresh chutney.
“Americans think of the English version, with cooked fruit and lots of sugar, but that’s just one style,” says David Machado, chef and owner of Vindalho, a restaurant in the SE Clinton neighborhood that re-imagines Indian dishes using local ingredients. Unlike some Indian establishments, where the table’s lazy Susan of condiments invariably includes a murky brown, candy-sweet variety, Vindalho marches out a squadron of fresh chutneys each day, vivid as bowls of jewels, each spiked with complex spices rather than loads of sugar.
While conceptualizing Vindalho’s “Spice Route” cuisine, including their chutneys, Machado was inspired by a biography of the Portuguese maritime explorer Ferdinand Magellan. “Despite us good little Catholic children being taught Magellan sailed for God and gold,” says Machado of the sailor’s circumnavigation of the globe, “what he sailed for was spice.” To reflect that history, the eight chutneys that grace Vindalho’s menu incorporate spices that range from South American chiles to Asian tamarind.
“When we first started to make them, I thought they’d be a lot of work, but they’re really not,” says Vindalho’s chef de cuisine David Anderson, setting down a tray of chutneys and a huge slab of the puffy Indian bread called naan, baked fresh in a hot tandoor oven. Tearing off pieces of naan and swiping them through each of the chutneys turns out to be a stunning way to experience their brightness and individuality: the citric tang of tomato chutney, the sweet-hot quality of red-onion-date chutney, and a mellow pear-ginger chutney that offers the snap of whole mustard seed. The most vibrant of them all is the cilantro-mint chutney, an emerald green fusion that takes 10 minutes to make and is explosively flavorful without being overpowering—the perfect palate cleanser after all that holiday feasting. While Anderson pairs it with roasted-pumpkin samosas, he says, “You can also just put it on a piece of fish and a little steamed rice, and you have this healthy meal without feeling deprived of flavor.”
Now, close your eyes. Look past all those gravy boats of recent memory, and picture yourself like Magellan, on the salty, open sea, where all you need to sustain yourself is a new day, a little bread and—cheers to the glorious exploration that is food—a bit of savory, brilliant green chutney to put on it.