I have mentioned before that words fascinate me. With my recent foray into making chutney, when The Husband and I were discussing what should go on the label of Jan Boer’s special bottle, he asked if I was going to use the Afrikaans word for chutney, blatjang. What ultimately went on the label is not important, but it did set me wondering. Both English and Dutch, and therefore also Afrikaans, are Indo-European languages, so the roots of some words are common. Often, words are similar, like “day” and “dag”; “light” and “lig”; and “lemon” which, in Afrikaans is “suurlemoen” (direct translation: sour lemon).
I discovered, nearly 20 years ago, on a trip to Mallorca, that I could get by, in the Old City of Palma, with less than rudimentary Spanish and Afrikaans to buy spices, vegetables and fruit: “pomelo” is the Afrikaans word for grapefruit. I was very proud of myself when, as a thank you to my host, I was able to successfully shop for the necessary spices and other bits and bobs to make a traditional South African supper of bobotie, boereboontjies and geelrys with melktert for dessert*.
There were many Spanish words I could understand when I saw them written. For example, furniture shops: their names included “meubles” which is the same spelling as the Afrikaans word for furniture.
So where did “blatjang” come from?
Before I had satisfied my curiosity, and ending our week in the usual way, at the local pub, Jan Boer (yes, he of apricot fame), sent us home with another tray piled with fruit. This time, yellow cling peaches.
Windfalls. They really were. In every sense.
This summer, the weather has been badly out of kilter: very little wind in November and December, but some howling gales last month. With equally unseasonally high temperatures, the farmers haven’t been thrilled and when the harvest is underway, and the wind howls, it can wreak havoc with ripening fruit.
Too Scottish to look a gift-horse in the mouth (with no apologies for the mixed metaphors), something had to be done. Some were stewed: summer comfort food. Retro peaches and custard.
The peaches provided The Husband with something sweet while I was away…
The rest were mostly made into chutney – in some ways a very different process from apricot chutney because of the nature of the fruit: peaches are furry; their pips are not easy to liberate and I had decided two other things: a recipe that didn’t necessitate a visit to the shops meant no dried fruit. Secondly, it should not have the same spice profile as the apricot chutney.
“Un-furring” the peaches
The first task was to try to “un-fur” the peaches. Standard instructions for doing this is very similar to those for skinning tomatoes with the added step of blanching them in iced water after their boiling plunge.
Well, as my old Dad would have said, that was a good game, played slow: even with The Husband’s help, those skins were not very obliging. It wasn’t only the pips that clung to those peaches! Contrary to all the “destructions” contained on websites and in recipe books, the skins did not just slip off.
After cogitating on this, I came to the conclusion that if the skin clung to that extent, the chutney wouldn’t be contaminated by awful bits of stringy epidermal tissue, and the worst that could happen was that the peach bits would have a bit of extra texture.
Skinning abandoned, the peaches were “segmented” and added to the pot with the other ingredients.
And cooked. And cooked.
For this batch:
2kg peaches, pipped (only half were peeled)
800ml wine vinegar (combination of red and mostly white because that’s what I had)
35g fresh ginger, chopped
6 onions (white), halved and thinly sliced
12 cardamom pods, lightly cracked
6 jalapeño chillies, thinly sliced
Put all the ingredients in a large, non-reactive pot (stainless steel or enamel) over a medium heat. Stir until the sugar has dissolved and simmer, stirring from time to time until the peaches are soft and translucent. This will take an hour to an hour and a half. After about half of the time, keep an eye on it and stir more frequently so that the chutney doesn’t catch and burn. Pot in sterilised jars.
In addition to the different flavour profile from the apricot chutney, peach chutney is chunkier and sweeter which is offset by the chillies.
Back to the words
Chutney bottled, I returned to my word search. It turns out that in 19th century South Africa, “blatjang” (pronounced blut–chung) had two meanings: a condiment and a specific dish (sadly, none of my research revealed what that specific dish might have been unless it was merely an idiomatic expression). The condiment blatjang is described as a relish made from dried chillies and dried apricots, stewed in vinegar.
Regardless of these two meanings, the sources all agree that the word crept into the Dutch and therefore, also Afrikaans, via Malaysia and Indonesia.
As I worked through the various sources, thinking about the spice trade and the rise (or fall) of the Dutch and English as colonial powers, it all fell into place. The Dutch East India Company centred on Indonesia and had a presence in Cape Town to supply passing ships with essential vittles. It all makes sense, especially with the strong influence in the Cape from the Malay slaves who not only brought their cuisine, but also their language to the Cape, profoundly influencing the development of Afrikaans from the original Dutch.
Chutney, on the other hand, is an Anglicisation of a Hindi word: “chatni”, which means “to lick”, and which referred to side dishes made of fruit. These, of course, included spices. The word also seems to have emerged in English in the 19th century and as the English so often do, they made these dishes their own by “pickling” the relishes with vinegar, and calling them “chutney”.
In Afrikaans, blatjang is now accepted as what we now understand in English as chutney, which is as I discovered when I was looking for a recipe for the apricot chutney, is a relish made with fruit, spices and vinegar – with or without chillies and/or onions.
Similarly, with the British Empire, the Indian Raj, and curry having become, in the minds of some, England’s national dish, makes the etymology of chutney absurdly obvious.
If you’re interested
Here is a list of some of the websites I visited in this wondrous word search.
* bobotie is a spiced mince with an egg custard topping
boereboontjies – literal translation is “farmer’s beans” and consists of a stew of tomatoes, onion and green beans and, traditionally with a couple of shin bones thrown in. Among the party that evening were vegetarians, so the meat was omitted
geelrys or yellow rice is cooked with turmeric, cinnamon and sultanas
melktert – a baked custard tart
Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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