Come February, it is not uncommon to find terraces of households across India covered in cut fruits and vegetables laid out on clean cotton bed sheets, left out to dry under the gentle winter sun. It’s pickling season and everything from limes, chillies, carrots, dates or berries, is prepared to be doused in spice mixes and preserved in oil and salt.
The most popular pickle during summer months across India is still the mango, whether it is made with fennel seeds or asafoetida, called hing in Hindi. Mangoes are turned into a chutney with sugar in Gujarat, pickled with saunf or aniseed in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and in Andhra Pradesh, they are pickled often with fiery chillies.
But while mangoes might reign supreme, the truth is there is no Indian fruit, vegetable or berry that you will not find in a pickle.
Several parts of the world preserve seasonal produce as pickles – olives, cucumbers, beetroots and eggs – but in India, pickling is an often elaborate process which takes weeks, involving spices and oils instead of just brine. There is a set procedure involved. Each region has its own traditions when it comes to pickling, to ensure quality and the right balance of flavours.
The Kashmiri pickle made with knol khol vegetable is savoury, while the Punjab mixed pickle made using turnips, cauliflower and carrots, strives for a sweet and savoury taste with a hint of tartness. In some southern states like Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, prawns and fish are pickled and preserved, while the North Eastern states pickle beef, pork and dried fish with bamboo shoots to create a spicy condiment to accompany their meals.
According to food writer and historian Pritha Sen, pickles made in Bengali households usually stick to seasonal fruits and berries – mangoes are pickled in mustard oil, sometimes combined with jaggery. The pungent mustard sauce called kasundi is technically pickled mustard.
“The main difference is in the use of panch phoron, or five spice, whether as tempering or dry roasted and powdered with mustard paste or powder,” said Sen. “Since Bengal has a sweet tooth, most pickles have a tendency to veer towards the sweet and hot, or sweet and sour and hot with a heavy use of jaggery.”
Traditionally made by women, each pickle has a distinct method with precise instructions that need to be followed. Often, it begins with laying out cut fruits or vegetables to dry in the winter sun. Thieving children or greedy adults who approach these with moist or dirty hands often receive a resounding whack from the women on guard.
The most common spice mix usually involves mustard oil as a base, which when used with salt, acts as the preservative. Once the fruit or vegetable is dry, it is combined with the other ingredients and put together in a container to pickle, until everything is blended and the raw quality of the spices and fruits has gone. Even though the spices and oil tend to be similar throughout India, the proportions are unique to each culture.
There is a certain nostalgia to the process of making pickles. In her book on Kayasth cuisine, Mrs LC’s Table, author Anoothi Vishal reminisces about the spicy achaars made by her maternal grandmother: “Her sense of measure and balance while pickling was deemed perfect. The lime pickle she made was legendary… If the best of red wines ages well, so did my maternal grandmother Naniji’s pickles, and rarely did her achaar spoil.”
Vishal writes about the Kayasth women in her family being experts at making pickles out of fresh, plump and bright red chillies, lasode, or the Indian cherry, the mixed pickle of turnips and cauliflower and even jackfruit. According to her, lasode is one pickle ingredient that is disappearing from households.
“Back then, some of the ingredients were even grown at home,” said Vishal. “The karonda, an extremely sour pinkish berry, would be plucked fresh and sautéed with spices and souring agents to make into a fresh pickle.”
In 2015, celebrity chef Kunal Kapur hosted a television show called, Pickle Nation, in which he travelled all over India in search of traditional pickles. One of his favourite discoveries, made during the course of the show, was the gundruk pickle from Darjeeling. Originally a Nepalese recipe, gundruk pickle is made by fermenting mustard or radish leaves. “It’s the stem that holds the flavour, more than the leaves. So before pickling, the thick stem is pounded to release juices,” said Kapur.
For Kapur, pickling is associated with childhood memories: school lunchboxes filled with roti and achaar, or bread and pickle; running up to the terrace to save drying vegetables from the rain.
Kapur is currently in the process of putting together a book of pickle recipes. “Pickles are an integral part of how people define their food culture and each region is intensely passionate about their pickles,” Kapur writes on his blog. “For instance, with the Parsis in Ahmedabad, it is mandatory to make lagan nu achar and give it to the elders and relatives in the family before they finalise the marriage of a couple. A Hyderabadi style of mango pickle breaks the long-held notion that a drop of water can destroy a pickle, as this mango pickle is made in water and limestone is added to preserve this pickle.”
The Pickle Digest, a book that is widely considered the the Bible of Indian pickles, was published by retired lawyer Usha R Prabhakaran in 1998. Chennai-based Prabhakaran was hunting for a book of pickle recipes when she found that the art of making spicy condiments had been sidelined for main courses and desserts.
Apart from recipes and methods of preparation, Prabhakaran’s book also touches upon the medicinal benefits of pickles. Spices act as anti-oxidants, the oil helps kill bacteria in the intestinal tract. Many pickles include ginger, asafoetida and turmeric, all of which are digestives, while red chillies in small doses are believed to have antiseptic properties.
In a book, titled Creative Ways to Generate Income by Luis SR Vas, a section uses Prabhakaran’s book as example. In the book she is quoted as saying: “The purpose of my book was to demystify the preparation of Indian pickles.” In The Pickle Digest, Prabhakaran describes in detail how to select vegetables for pickles, how to grind spices, sieve, blend and mix – all of this is done with natural preservatives. However, Prabhakaran believes that pickle-making is a dying art in India, where jars of factory-made pickles are replacing grandma’s specials.
Chef Kapur believes the need to eat healthy has discouraged most from learning traditional recipes which use large amounts of oil and salt. But pickles, such as the Hyderabadi mango pickle, most lime pickles and mahali pickle popular in Tamil Nadu use no oil. While lime pickles use their own acid content as preservative, mahali pickles use yogurt. “Mahali is a root that smells of intense vanila, bitter almond and cinnamon. It is not short of a miracle that no vinegar or oil is used yet the pickle survives for over two years in curd,” Kapur writes on his blog.
Though Vishal agrees that the older methods of pickling are slowly disappearing, she said she also believes that young chefs are experimenting with pickling more than ever.
“The traditional methods are labour intensive and not many have the time to follow the recipes they have been handed down in the way their grandmothers used to do it, but that doesn’t mean that pickling is a dying art form,” she said. “There are chefs going beyond the traditional recipes and experimenting with fermentation and brining of familiar and locally produced ingredients. I recently went to a dinner where the chef served pickled carrots for one course. The meal also included a pickled beetroot juice which was essentially kaanji [a sour fermented drink].”
Sen is also optimistic about the future of pickling and fermentation as part of the Indian cuisine. “An entire new genre of home chefs who have arrived on the scene are making traditional products,” she said. “Pickling and preserving is headed for a boom.”
Pritha Sen’s mango pickle recipe:
Grate sour green mangoes, dust with salt and keep aside to get excess water out. Top generously with chopped green chillies, mustard paste and mustard oil. You may dry roast red chillies and crumble it on the mix. Bottle and let it mature. Sun it for a few days and make sure it does not come in contact with any water.
Vishal’s recipe for her favourite lasode ka achaar in Mrs LC’s Table.
1kg green lasode
Salt to taste
500g mustard oil
5 raw mangoes, peeled
1 tbsp turmeric powder
3 tbsp fennel powder
2 tbsp red chilli powder
2 tbsp vinegar
Lightly boil the lasode in water with a little salt and 2 tbsp oil. Make sure they remain firm and al dente but soften just enough remove the pit.
Lightly steam the raw mango, remove the pulp and mix this with turmeric, fennel and red chilli powders, salt and vinegar.
This is the stuffing for the lasode that have been pitted. Once the berries are filled, smear them with a little oil and leave them for a day in a martabaan, or earthen jar.
Then top up the martabaan with the rest of the oil. Leave to pickle in the sun fpr 4-5 more days. Store.