Chutsa: Neither Salsa nor Chutney

There has been an ongoing discussion on the Lakewood Observer Observation Deck about how (or if) chutney differs from salsa and how both differ from the generic relish. A determination of where chutney ends and salsa begins and how both relate to relish is not of monumental importance. If you happen to like the taste of any product, it really doesn’t matter how it’s classified - just spoon it out and enjoy! What makes this quandary a trifle more interesting is how the demarcations between the three have blurred and how that reflects the larger issue of our own food standards morphing as new influences are incorporated. To understand this phenomenon, let’s first return to the pure state of each, before the lines began to blur.

Originally, the natively Spanish salsa was generally viewed as a preparation of vegetables into a sauce. Indeed, salsa is Spanish for sauce. When we think of salsas, we generally have in mind the Mexican incarnation, which includes several basic types. There is pico de gallo or salsa cruda: an uncooked sauce of coarsely chopped vegetables, usually tomato, chiles, onion seasoned with lime, garlic, and cilantro. Another type is salsa roja, which is a cooked sauce using essentially the same ingredients as its cousin, cruda. Then, there is salsa verde: a green salsa made with tomatillos and chiles. While each is different, they are nevertheless classified under the generic “salsa” due to their similarity in ingredients, as well as their common use as a condiment. Salsas entered into our culinary lexicon through the popularity of southwestern and Tex-Mex restaurants and cooking.

Chutney had its genesis in India and South Asia. Unlike the vegetable makeup of salsa, chutney (which can be either wet or dry) was generally a fruit-based preparation. There is some ingredient overlap with salsas; specifically, cilantro and chiles are also often used in chutneys. The most standard types of chutneys include tamarind, mango, and coconut, all of which are typically spicy, but possess an element of sweetness not present in salsas. Chutneys owe their acceptance in western cooking to the British Empire which, along with gin and tonic and India Pale Ales, imported the condiment from its colonial holdings in the area.

My extensive research on the subject reveals that in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, probably near the area of Ponca City, Oklahoma, various eastbound salsa recipes, making their way out of the Nogales area, ran head-long into various westbound chutney recipes, working their way past St. Louis. The result of that collision was the first pineapple salsa. It wasn’t really a salsa, but, by the same token, it certainly wasn’t chutney. The two had melded and morphed into salsney (admittedly, some have elected to refer to the resulting concoction as chutsa…either is correct).

The trend, of course, had been on the horizon for some time before the actual culinary collision. Salsas typically did not include vinegar, as they were usually prepared and served fresh. However, as salsas became more popular and more commercially available, it was necessary to modify the homemade recipes to allow for grocery store shelf life. Not only were salsas then generally cooked, but vinegar was also added as a preservative. The texture of the traditional salsa crude became more akin to a chunky store-bought spaghetti sauce.

At the same time, chutney was becoming popular enough to necessitate grocery store availability, meaning that it, too, had a need for added shelf life. This was usually accomplished by the addition of an acidic base such as citrus juice. Thus, well before the Ponca City culinary collision, a metamorphosis had already begun with commercial salsa taking on the vinegar and savory overtones of homemade chutney and commercial chutney taking on the citrus overtones of homemade salsa.

So, where are we now? We have any number of salsas with a fruit component – everything from pineapple and mango to raspberries and peaches. Of course, traditional chutney is still available, most notably imported by Crosse and Blackwell, and there are still any number of commercial salsas, but the trend seems to be towards the more exotic chutsas and salsneys, which draw upon the traditions of both, but, in fact, are neither one nor the other.

Mango Chutney

1/2 tsp. oil
1 Clove garlic, crushed
1 Jalapeño chili, seeded and finely diced
1/8 tsp. cumin seeds
1 Large sweet mango, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/8 tsp. ground coriander
2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. sugar
1/8 tsp. salt

Sauté the garlic, chili, and cumin seeds in 1/2 tsp. oil until golden brown. Add the remaining ingredients, mix well, and refrigerate overnight. Serve as a condiment for roasted chicken or pork.

Classic Salsa Cruda

2 Cups seeded, chopped tomatoes, diced
1/2 Cup stemmed, chopped cilantro
6 Cloves fresh finely minced garlic
2/3 Cup diced onion
1 Jalapeño or Chipotle (seeded for a milder salsa) finely chopped
1 tsp. salt
juice of 1/2 lime

Combine all ingredients. Chill overnight. Serve as a side with quesadillas or during football games with tortilla chips and cold beer.
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Volume 3, Issue 2, Posted 6:06 PM, 01.17.07