Food is about so much more than nutrition—it’s one of the most personal expressions of our cultures, values, and traditions. Our series, Behind the Recipe, profiles a different healthy cook every month to explore the personal, untold stories of their favorite dishes. This month, Top Chef and Taste The Nation host and author Padma Lakshmi shares the tomato chutney recipe she grew up making with her mom, excerpted from her new children’s book, Tomatoes for Neela ($15). As an uber-popular chef and TV host, Lakshmi’s schedule is jam-packed. But even amidst all the busyness, she always makes time for family, and of course food—both of which, her Behind The Recipe story is about.
Smell and taste are powerful memory prompts. Enjoying a dish you grew up eating can lead to warm and gooey feelings that go far beyond the temperature of the food. Padma Lakshmi says for many immigrant children in the U.S., the power of cooking is something that can connect them to their culture and, often, family members living far away. She writes about this in her first-ever children’s book, Tomatoes for Neela ($15).
In the book, Neela, a young girl, loves cooking with her mom because it makes her feel close to her paati, who lives around the world in India. “When you’re a kid that straddles two cultures—whatever those cultures may be—having traditional foods becomes a touchstone,” she says. “Maybe you don’t know the language, religion, or all the customs. But food is something you can easily connect to.”
Lakshmi says that for her, cooking and food are ways of storytelling—in a sense, they have own language. She grew up cooking with her mom, and one food they cooked a lot with was tomatoes. “My mom grew tomatoes in our backyard. We’d always have an abundance of delicious, ripe tomatoes,” Lakshmi says. One dish they would make together was a tomato chutney, simple yet flavorful. “My mom was the condiment queen and would put chutney on anything,” Lakshmi says. “So tomato chutney really was a staple in my house.”
Tomato chutney was served alongside rice and ghee, used in place of salsa with chips, and paired with chicken or steak.”You can use it like ketchup or a mild hot sauce,” Lakshmi says. Her particular tomato chutney recipe—which she says is really her mom’s recipe—is made with ingredients Lakshmi says are common in most Indian households, like cumin, ginger, and turmeric. “The only real ‘exotic’ ingredients are the brown mustard seeds and curry leaves, which are optional,” she says. “It is a very simple recipe and all the ingredients are pretty accessible.”
When Lakshmi had her own daughter, who is now 11 years old, she continued the tradition of cooking with her—including recipes she grew up making with her own mom, like this tomato chutney. “There is such pleasure in writing recipes down and sharing them with your family,” Lakshmi says. “Cooking is also a great way to teach kids so many developmental skills. It teaches them spelling, organizational thought, fractions, measuring… so many things!”
If you make Lakshmi’s tomato chutney recipe with your own kids, she offers up one cooking tip: do the mustard seed frying yourself. “When the seeds get hot, they can pop out of the pan, so you have to be really careful when doing that—especially because kids are right at hip-level,” she says. Other than that, the recipe allows for plenty of ways for parents and kids to cook together.
“Giving children the gift of curiosity and love of cooking is one of the best gifts you can give them,” Lakshmi says. “A child who is interested in the food they’re helping to make will be more interested to eat it. It gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment too.”
It also creates family memories, just like the tomato chutney recipe has done for Lakshmi. Even when you’re no longer cooking in the same kitchen with your kids, delicious dishes do have the power to transport you back in time—one bite at a time.
Padma Lakshmi’s tomato chutney recipe
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp brown or black mustard seeds
1 cup yellow onion, diced
2 Tbsp minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
2 Tbsp minced ginger (2-inch piece)
2 dozen fresh curry leaves, torn into rough bits (optional)
1/4 tsp ground cumin
2 lbs tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 tsp sugar (optional)
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
1. Heat the oil in a deep skillet on medium heat. When hot, lower the heat slightly and add the cumin and mustard seeds. Sauté. Be careful, as the mustard seeds will pop out of the pan when they get hot.
2. When the mustard seeds start popping, quickly add the onion, garlic, and ginger. Stir and sauté until the onions are glassy, about five to seven minutes. Now, add the curry leaves (if using), turmeric, and cayenne. Cook together for another two to three minutes, mixing well.
3. Add the tomatoes in carefully and stir well. Once the tomatoes start to break open (about six minutes), add a half cup of water and salt to taste (and one teaspoon) and stir. Cover and lower the heat to a simmer. Let it cook, stirring often, for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the cover and cook another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in a bit more water if it sticks, one to two tablespoons at a time. You want a loose, jammy consistency at the end. Taste it. Does it need anything else?
4. Now it should be tangy. Adjust salt or sugar if needed, one pinch at a time. Add black pepper and additional cayenne to taste. Remove heat and let cool. Store in a glass container or jar in the fridge for three to four days.
Get more recipe ideas in Well+Good’s Cook With Us Facebook group.
Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.