Some time ago, I started a thread on dining protocols in (non-buffet) Indian restaurants, from the perspective of an American. There are lots of wonderful responses:
One thing that remains unclear to me after that thread is the chutneys and sauces. Apart from raita, which I understand, I am wondering what uses are common for the various condiments. At the buffet, one usually finds one or more rather chunky types of chutney, moderately spicy, then there's usually also a finer-textured green one, evidently using cilantro and parsley, and then sometimes there's a wetter red one with seeds, quite spicy.
I'm not doctrinaire, so absolute rules are not my concern. But obviously I'm already busy tasting these things and am curious. What do people with native knowledge regard as the most effective uses of these things?
I have no "native knowledge" - but I eat and make chutney. I do that to add different textures and flavours to an Asian meal.
I guess the first thing, since you mentioned it, is raita. Raita is not really a condiment. It's essentially a side dish. For example, if you were preparing a plate for yourself at an indian buffet (like at a wedding reception), you'd take some rice, a scoop of veg, a scoop of dal, a scoop of raita, a piece of naan, etc. The raita is eaten as a side dish, but in conjunction with the other items. For example, you'd scoop up some rice, drag it through your dal, then drag it through your raita.
Most restaurants serve two chutneys: green and tamarind.
The green chutney is either mint, cilantro, or a combination of the two. It's supposed to have a kick to it, but many restaurants tone it down because of the clientele. It's normally eaten with snack items like samosas, pakoras, drizzled on chaat, etc, but it's also delicious with rice. You can also use it as a sandwich spread (we love it like that). I've heard some restaurants serve papad with chutney to dip it in as a "bread and butter" type appetizer, but I've never seen that done anywhere, myself.
The brown, thin chutney is tamarind chutney ("imli"). It's made by soaking tamarind, then straining the water, and adding in some sugar, and your spices. This is also used with snacks and chaats normally. Usually tamarind chutney is less spicy than the green chutney.
There are also regional chutneys, like coconut chutney (served with dosa, idli, etc), tomato chutney, peanut chutney, garlic chutney, etc. They can be eaten with snack items or with your main dish, depending on what the dish is and what kind of chutney it is.
The other condiment that is commonly served is "achaar", or Indian pickle. It's fruit and/or vegetables that have been preserved in oil and spices, and eaten in small quantity alongside your meal. They can be very spicy or less spicy. There are many variations of this, such as mango, chilli, lemon, carrot, stuffed red chillies, garlic, etc. Recipes are passed from generation to generation sometimes, and every family (who still makes achaar, that is) has their own version. I love eating mixed pickle (achaar made with mango, lemon, carrot, green chillies) with dal and roti, or with aloo or paneer parathas.
This covers most of the traditional uses of chutneys and pickles. Pickles are used a little differently in the south; they are usually eaten with rice and yogurt as the last course of the meal. Some serious pickle fans sometimes also just mix the spicy pickle sauce with rice and a little ghee; I've seen this done with sesame-mango pickle (avakai).
A related class of condiments is podis: powdered spice-and-sugar mixtures that can be used plain the same way pickles are, or mixed with a little ghee and used like chutneys.
Some Indian chutneys and pickles also make great sandwiches. Cilantro chutney with butter or cream cheese on white bread, or shrimp pickles with butter on wheat; you get the idea.
Podis are one thing I've never really experienced. The majority of my south Indian food has been at restaurants in Singapore and Malaysia, and they don't serve podis. I've seen a couple packaged ones at the Indian store, so I may have to check them out. So do you mix the powder with your food, like rice and sambhar, for example, or eat it with plain rice, or ? Any packaged brands you would recommend?
We love making aloo tikki sandwiches with mint chutney. Trader Joes sells a great Masala Veggie burger, which is essentially a big aloo tikki. Pan fry that, put on bread with cheese, sliced cucumber, tomato, mayo and some mint chutney. Sometimes I add tomato-chilli sauce too. So good!
I haven't tried any brands -- my experience with podis is whatever my relatives had lying around. It was often eaten with yogurt-rice; just dab a little onto each mouthful like you would with achaar. Also good with idlis and dosas, optionally mixed with a little ghee to form a sort of paste. You could do the podi-ghee thing with plain rice as well.
The aloo tikki chutney sandwich sounds like an awesome carbsplosion. Something to keep in mind on my next Trader Joe's run.
At a place in the suburbs that serves vegetarian from several South Indian states I got four cups of chutney with Uthappam, identified as coconut, gunpowder, coriander/mint/chilli, and garlic.
As they were clearing my table I commented that I didn't get much out of the gunpowder and they said the spices tend to settle and you have to stir it. So I've had gunpowder but I really don't know what it tastes like.
Re: the green chutney. I was reading an article a few months back based on interviews with restauranteurs in the Mahatma Gandhi District here (name chosen by the restauranteurs and other merchants there) who were saying they like doing business here because Houstonians are used to and like spicy food and they don't have to tone down their recipes as much as elsewhere. I've had green chutney that was basically just jalapeno.
When was just getting into Indian food some years back I was always peppering my server or the restauranteur with questions and the thin reddish/brown chutney was frequently identified as date/tamarind, not just tamarind.
These days I sally forth as though I know what I'm doing and seldom ask that many questions anymore, but I should.
All I know is that I could eat a bucket of coriander chutney with a big old spoon until it was gone. To me, it's the ultimate culinary gift from India to the world.
Also, I have very little knowledge of Indian food. The best was when I ate in an Indian doctor's home (was doing some work for her). She was already famous for her cooking skills, and I absolutely loved everything she made. I've had some of the same dishes in restaurants that paled in comparison. Not sure if she was cooking for my palate or there's a big gap in Indian restaurant vs Indian homemade food. But it was so fabulous.
On a slightly different note, just a comment from what I see in my family, coming from a Gujarati background, we have two distinct categories for our pickles and chutneys.
We have some that are fresh and made either the day of or a couple of days prior, normally featuring fresh chillies with mustard and lemon, fresh green peppercorns and other roots like carrot, or the fresh chutneys like the green coriander one or the red one, and we have pickles. These are ideally left over some time in sugar and lemon to ferment and marinade and also include chillies, mango, other fruits like lemon etc and a lot of roots as well.
The Pickled chutneys and aachar are served up at every meal to allow diners to enhance a curry and rotli meal to individual tastes. The fresh pickles are also served to enhance tastes but are seasonally dependant
A few words on chutney for people less familiar with South Asian cuisine:
I've come to realize that many non-desis are confused bout chutney. For example, people who are not very familiar with desi food usually think that chutney means some sort of fruit compote. We think instantly of mango chutney when we hear the word mentioned. I suppose that this is one kind of chutney. Many non-desis who frequent Indo-Pak restaurants know mint-coriander chutney and tamarind chutney as the green and reddish purple sauces that come with pappadums. Those are also two types of chutney. But how does one explain what chutney actually is? Chutney can be a concoction which is served as a dipping sauce (for samosa, pakora, kachori etc. like the green and red-purple sauce), but it is more than that. It is like Korean kimchi and all the rest of the banchan. You can have bites of many types of chutneys on the side of a meal, or mix it into your food to change up the flavor. Chutneys can be cooling, but often they add heat and pungency to a dish. There are wet chutneys and dry chutneys. There are chutneys made with fresh ingredients and chutneys made with cooked ingredients, and combinations of both. There are even chutneys that are powder or grain-like in texture...I've had delicious dry chutneys from Maharashtra; one made of ground coconut, red chile, and garlic, and another that was just dried red chile, cumin, and garlic and seemed like a powder. From Kashmir to Kerala and all in between, there are probably hundreds of thousands of types of chutneys.
Some people even spread chutneys on bread for sandwich making.
You also have the classic Mysore Masala dosa which is spread with a chutney but also served with some types of chutney (and sambar) on the side.
In my husband's family they don't have chutneys with every meal. But daily meals with have one or two "main dishes" plus the table will be set with plain yoghurt (they are not also big on seasoned raita), a couple of different types of pickles (preserved oil based and fresh vinegar based) and kasaundi (another type of preserve variety similar to achaar).
Getting beyond the green and purple restaurant chutney, some of my favorite types of chutney are tomato-sesame from Hyderabad. I also love the Gujarati garlic-red chile chutney. Both of these are the types you mix with your rice or food while you eat.
Oh, another item that serves a similar purpose to chutney as a side item you mix in the food while you eat, or taste bites of to spice up a simple meal (like a plain daily daal and rice): dahi mirchi...red chiles soaked in seasoned yoghurt and then dried in the sun to preserve them, and then served by briefly deep frying. I love that!
I think it's all about having a lot of varieties of flavor available at meals.