One of the signs, probably, of the tomato’s late entry and adoption in Indian foodways is that its name hasn’t changed much in some major Indian languages from the Spanish tomate and the English tomato. In Hindi, for example, the word is “tamatar”, pronounced “tuh-maa-tur”; and the English transliteration of the Bengali would be “tomato”, though pronounced “tom-ae-toh” (with hard t’s all around). Whereas in the Hindi belt in North India the tomato has been fully indigenized—it is a crucial ingredient in a number of iconic savoury dishes—in the east its incorporation is less complete, more belated. I think I’ve noted before that, as per my aunts, one of the marks of North Indian influence in my mother’s cooking is that she uses a lot more tomato in savoury dishes than is strictly traditional in Bengal. However, though the recipe for this dish which centers almost entirely on the tomato is from my mother, it is for a fairly traditional Bengali dish: tomator chatni. Tomatoes are used here though as a fruit rather than as a vegetable.
Though the Bengali “chatni” sounds like the Hindi “chutney” the two words connote very different classes of dishes. While chutneys are condiments or dips, in Bengali cuisine chatnis are a class of sweet-sour, syrup-based dishes that are not quite desserts; in a formal meal they’d come between the savoury courses and dessert proper. They’re usually made with fruit. I’ve posted a recipe previously for the classic chatni made with unripe mangoes. There are also chatnis made with pineapple and dates, to name only two. Tomator chatni (tomator=”of tomato”) is another and, as noted above, tomatoes too are used here as fruit. It’s a sweet-sour dish in the Bengali scheme of things but if you’re from a culture with a tooth not as ruinously sweet as that of us Bengalis you might find it plenty sweet anyway.
This recipe from my mother is unusually specific in terms of quantities. I suspect—though I cannot prove—that she came up with it at a time when I was pressing her for more specificity in the recipes she was sending me; and that these quantities are in fact only rough approximations of what she actually uses. I myself don’t really measure very carefully any more (my own recipes are more than a little fictional in this sense too) but I will give you the ingredients list as I received it from her back in 2004; the preparation steps are mine: my mother’s instructions are mostly in the “after a while, add…” vein.
- 500 gms fresh, ripe tomatoes, chopped
- 200 gms sugar
- 1 tspn panch phoron
- 1 dried red chilli
- 1 tspn grated ginger
- 1 handful golden raisins (here the specificity breaks down—how large is the hand?)
- 1/2 tspn salt
- 1 tblspn oil
- Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat and send the panch phoron and the dried red chilli for a swim.
- When the seeds turn aromatic and the chilli puffs up (a matter of seconds) add the tomatoes and cook over high heat for a few minutes.
- Add the salt and continue to stir over high heat till the tomatoes have almost completely broken down.
- Add the sugar, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 2 more minutes till the syrup begins to thicken ever so slightly.
- Add the grated ginger and the raisins, mix in, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 2 more minutes.
- Cool and serve.
- Be careful not to let the panch phoron or the chilli scorch.
- Resist the temptation to use canned tomatoes; there is no substitute for the flavour of fresh in this recipe.
- Instead of panch phoron you could use all mustard seeds (though keep in mind they should be the black/dark brown mustard seeds, not the light brown/yellow more common in American cooking).
- If you want to be fancy you could peel your tomatoes first. The most effort I make is to fish some of the curled up peel out of the cooked dish—but unless you’re serving this at a party I wouldn’t bother.
- This chatni is often made with a combination of tomatoes and dates. If you’re not a fan of raisins, feel free to sub dates in.