The Tangy Tradition Of Indian Pickles: From Caring Hands To Happy Bellies
The long-held Indian tradition of making Achaar, loosely translated to South Asian pickles, besides being a fond heirloom in our Indian households, is also one of the highlighted ways of conserving fruits, vegetables, and sometimes meat for months. The process of pickling dates back to nearly four thousand years when people the Tigris Valley used to salt and oil their food to preserve it for long journeys. On the other hand, in India, pickling purposed as a way of preserving food during food shortages before refrigeration and canning arrived. While the tradition of pickling may have developed as a solution to the problems of food scarcity and seasonality of produce, this method has also proved its mettle in helping us save surplus vegetables that did not make their way into our bellies. Especially in summers, when the chances of vegetables and fruits getting spoilt are greater, this preserving technique is used to contain the flavours together and help us relish the seasonal edibles for months, sometimes years.
It would be wrong to claim that pickles are only a part of the elaborate Indian kitchen. Places like South Korea, Morocco, Armenia, Middle East, and even Germany have their own version of pickled vegetables which complement the subtle flavour of the primary serving. Not only do they enhance the flavour of our ordinary meals, but also hold nutritional value. RJ Ruppenthal in his book Fresh Foods From Small Spaces (2008) explains how culturing food greatly adds to the nutritive value of the underlying food, besides enhancing the body’s ability to digest and absorb its nutrients.
These sweet and sour delicacies come to the rescue every time we feel like adding flavour to our food or when half of us hostel and PG students are too broke by the month-end. Every time we go back home, we definitely carry this one small jar which is filled with our all-time favourite aam ka achaar (mango pickle) which is common countrywide and savoured by everyone. Other than this aam ka achaar, other regional achaars from different states in India have their own sweet and tangy flavours.
The word achaar has its root in the Persian term which means ‘powdered or salted pickles or fruit, preserved in salt, vinegar or honey’. Every summer, a new set of huge glass jars called the barni is carefully washed with salt and lemon and is dried thoroughly. This prepares the barni for its new inmates with whom it will be spending a long time with. The process of making every achaar is somewhat similar with nearly the same secondary ingredients, and two primary ingredients – oil, the type of which varies from region to region, and salt.
While some use mustard oil, some others use sesame oil. Oil ensures the fermentation of the achaar and acts as the base ingredient. The oil totally covers the mixture and creates an anaerobic environment. It’s also worth knowing that different base oils produce differently-tasting achaar. For instance, if a batch of mango achaar is made in north India with the same ingredients as a batch made in south India, but two different kinds of oil are used, the finished product will have a different taste altogether.
The second cardinal ingredient is salt. A large amount of salt is used to draw out moisture and add flavour. It gives that bitter flavour which is regulated later by adding other dry ingredients like turmeric, cumin, chilli powder, and others. Being a versatile ingredient, the salt in the achaar, when eaten with rice, pulses, or any gravy-based vegetable, makes for the balance if any of the primary servings has lesser brininess than desired.
The flavours of different achaar vary from sweet to salty to spicy, depending upon the nature of the fruit or vegetable being pickled. For example, we can make both sweet achaar and spicy achaar from raw mangoes as it is has a sour taste which compliments both the variants. Depending upon the taste of the primary pickled ingredient, people across the country also make achaars from bamboo shoots (Mesu pickle of Sikkim), curry leaves (Karivepaku Urugai of Tamil Nadu), soya bean (Axone pickle of Nagaland), gooseberry (Amla pickle in Bihar, UP, and Jharkhand), lotus stem (Jammu and Kashmir), prawns (Chemmeen pickle of Kerala), fish (Fish pickle in Goa and coastal areas). The main motive is the preservation and since there is a huge geographical disparity, different places have different flora and fauna. This is the reason why pickling is common all around the world. It needs any locally consumed food item which can be meat too and readily available ingredients. Once the pickle is marinated and kept under the sun for at least one month, it will be ready to consume.
Pickling is considered to be a form of art. For many years, the art of pickling has been associated with the women of the household. What might have emerged from patriarchal leanings, has over centuries, evolved into one of the many secrets that women pass down to one another as a form of blessing across generations in order to keep this yearly ritual of making achaar alive. Every year, women come together and make the achaar on the terrace whilst talking, laughing, and sharing anecdotes. Achaar is not devoid its set of myths, however. While in some regions, a menstruating woman is not supposed to touch a jar of achaar, in others, it’s sad that achaar should not be made for one year after a wedding is conducted in the family, so as to not ‘sour the new relationship between the newlyweds and their new families.’
While most of our lives have become fast-paced where we don’t get enough time to invest in the elaborate ritual of pickling, many Indian companies have grabbed the wheel to ensure the availability of different types of pickles. At the same time, however, it is important to ensure that this art survives the test of time.
As a generation that breathes resistance and exhales creativity, we can probably also try to be a part of this generation-long trust and hope of the art of pickling. The bare minimum we can do is participate in the pickling process – talk, joke and share stories with our mothers and grandmothers, and learn this beautiful art of preservation. In a world where we depend on ordering and takeaway, pickling can come as a rescue as it is a one-time investment for yearlong consumption.
Today while I write this, the world is fighting against a deadly pandemic which has risked the survival of humans, but mine and millions of other family ladies are busy preparing and making pickle for another year-long consumption. A reminder of our belief in the force of nature, what is it if not a ray of hope and a reaffirmation of the fact that even if the present seems dark, the future is being carefully preserved and cultured – one achaar jar at a time?
Harsh Aditya is a 19-year-old college student, who is currently pursuing his passion for literature in Delhi and is a member of the All India Queer Association. He also opines on feminism, culture, history, and politics.
You can find him on Instagram here.
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