A Remembrance of Tomato Chutney

The Chutney Maker. Oil pastel by Brooke Burton
The Chutney Maker. Oil pastel by Brooke Burton

“If we don’t cook all of this down soon, it will go bad,” my mother says.

She points to the case of juicy summer tomatoes sweating in the heat on the kitchen counter. She drops a sack of onions on a thick wood cutting board. My mother pulls a chair up to the counter and hands me a heavy cleaver. I am to be my mother’s summer prep cook. I am nine.

My uniform for work is simple. I’m dressed in a one-piece bathing suit and wear swimming goggles pulled so tight over my face, the skin underneath puckers from the suction.

I am not skilled with a knife, but my will push my small hands to go faster. Beads of humidity, tears, and sweat pool at the bottom of my mask as I struggle to chop white rings of pungent onions into tiny slivers. We sing our favorite songs from Godspell.

I watch my mother chop onions into tall mounds. Her face is wet with tears and her long, wavy hair drips with sweat. I marvel at her strength. I feel the smallness of my hands on the big knife.

When we are done chopping, my mother stirs the piles of our hard work into a pot. She adds the liquid guts of the tomatoes, bags of brown sugar, cinnamon sticks, crushed cardamom, mustard seeds, and freshly chopped coriander.

The pot on the electric stove pushes rings of heat and spice into the air that are so heavy, my heart bangs against my chest like a bird trying to escape its cage.

We stand together, though, stirring our precious chutney with a long wooden spoon. The chutney is not yet chutney. It still has hours to go until it becomes the tawny stuff we heap on chicken. Fresh from the pot the reddish mash tastes of bright summer, the spice of fall, and something green and unfamiliar. 

When the kitchen gets too hot, we charge outside for mouthfuls of fresh air.  Exhausted, I crawl to the living room and fall asleep. Down low on the green shag rug, I dream of tomato chutney and the sweet juice soaking through light clouds of basmati rice.

*****

My mother recommends following the Tomato Chutney recipe from Recipes: The Cooking From India for this dish. This British cookbook was first published in 1969 and is full of easy to follow and delicious recipes and can be found used on many websites for under $5.

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Brooke Burton nominated for best food writing

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Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.

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