The imli sold at the Convent of Jesus and Mary canteen was a drop of heaven — khatti, meethi aur namkeen — and a pure delight to sneak a small bite off during class. The decade was the ’80s, the class was Urdu, the teacher was Mrs Naeem, and Nimra Bucha (yes, we are classfellows, and she had impeccable elocution even then), was reading Kuttay by Patras Bokhari.
It was a perfect Karachi February. I remember leaning into my desk, resting my head and enjoying imli while roaring with laughter. Patras’ writing is sharp, hilarious, witty, dry and oh-so-perfect to be read to high schoolers looking for a naughty laugh, and with a side of imli it was a match made in tangy, literary heaven.
I once saw an imli tree — I don’t know if it was in my dream, or reality, but I do remember it being absolutely beautiful — a quintessential tree; large, green, thick and old. It was the kind I wanted to rest under, take a lazy slumber in a warm spring afternoon, but alas, my nani’s words rang in my ears, ‘Never sleep under a tamarind tree. It will make you sleep forever’. Hence, as a kid, I believed that ill-fated Rip Van Winkle must have slept under a tamarind tree in his European village.
Later in life, I discovered that the tamarind tree breathes out harmful, acrid vapours, creating an unsafe environment to sleep under. Hence, plants do not grow under its shade due to the acidity emitted by the tree at night. There is usually little vegetation around its base, creating a perfect little picnic spot and, needless to say, the essence of its fruit is the heart of the chutney platter found in all subcontinental kitchens.
Imli chutney recipes are basic to make, and all the ingredients are almost always available in desi kitchens. A sure-fire side to all the desi snacks, and it is an integral part of so many of the dishes that sum up desi cuisine.
To make imli ka pani, approximates are important. My mother, like all mothers, was big on eyeballing — andaaza she called it — and, while cooking, she would hardly ever measure, but the end result was always perfect. Hence, recently when I was making kebab rolls for dinner, and ran out of imli ki chutney, I decided to make some of my own, and my research led me to the different methods of making chutney, and storing it. What I loved was the home-made chutney storing part, because store-bought never tastes as good as home-made. If you make a reasonable amount, you’ll always have some stored in the fridge or freezer when needed.
THE INSTANT AND STANDARD METHOD
Break the needed amount of piece from the large imli block, soak in hot water (boiled separately) for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the imli softens. Using your hands, press and massage to remove as much essence as possible, strain and use. Discard the pulp.
THE OVERNIGHT METHOD
Soak tamarind and place in an airtight glass container. Cover with enough water to immerse and refrigerate for eight to 10 hours. Tamarind pulp will soften and is now ready to use. Squeeze the essence from the pulp, cover and store in the refrigerator for up to a week.
THE PRACTICAL METHOD
The use of this method ensures there’s always imli ki chutney in the fridge. Massaging with hands, and boiling after, extends the life of the chutney for months. By using our hands to juice, and extract the essence from the pulp, we introduce bacteria that helps the imli ka pani from spoiling, and further boiling kills the germs.
I make a big bowl and store in the fridge (it lasts up to three months). Soak in hot water, let rest on the counter for an hour, juice entirely, throw the pulp and boil the imli ka pani for 10 minutes. Cool and store in a glass container and store up to three months.
The rest can be stored in the freezer.
200 gm tamarind (imli)
300 gm jaggery (gurr) grated
½ to 1 teaspoon roasted cumin
Red chilli powder and salt to taste
½ to 1 teaspoon black salt
Bring five cups of water to boil, add tamarind and cook for 10 minutes. Strain, add all other ingredients. Cook until the gurr dissolves and chutney thickens. Cool and serve. If chutney becomes thick to taste, add water to reach the desired consistency.
INSTANT KHATTI MEETHI CHUTNEY
Take the needed amount of imli ka pani (pre-made and stored in the fridge) from the fridge.
Add salt, cumin, chilli powder and sugar to taste. Your imli chutney is ready to serve.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, November 4th, 2018