Several foods grace nearly all Indian households across the globe, and more often than not, one of them is always pickle, or as we lovingly call it, achar. A food item that instantly reminds one of home and is perhaps the most asked for package to carry overseas, Indian pickles are packed with as much love as they are with flavour.
The idea of pickle differs throughout India. Loncha in Marathi, Urukai in Tamil, Athanu in Gujarati, Uppillittuthu in Malayalam, Pachadi in Telugu, among so many more renditions, pickle remains a household staple and favourite everywhere. The idea (or taste) of pickles, as such, is rather different in the West or even other parts of the world –– while the process may remain similar, Indian pickles are loaded with spices and hence, numerous layers of flavour. Its homely feeling is undeniable, but we often wonder –– how did it even come to be?
One of the earliest traces of pickling, according to the Pickle History Timeline (yes, such a thing exists) by the New York Food Museum dates back to 2030 BC when native Indian cucumbers were pickled in the Tigris Valley in Wayanad. It is believed that the word ‘pickle’ itself comes from the Dutch word pekel, meaning saline or brine. The word achar, however, that is widely used in India is believed to have Persian roots as it refers to ‘powdered or salted meats, pickles, or fruits, preserved in salt, vinegar, honey, or syrup’. On the other hand, Portuguese physician Garcia da Orta used achar in the book Hobson-Jobson: The Definitive Glossary of British India to indicate a cashew preserve with salt. A theory states that the Roman emperor Julius Caesar enjoyed pickles and also asked his men to eat some before battle for spiritual strength.
It is also believed that Ibn Battuta, a traveller and writer who documented Muhammad Bin Tughlaq’s life also mentioned pickles as follows.
“The fruit (mango) is about the size of a large damask prune, which when green and not quite ripe, of those which happen to fall, they salt as thus preserve them just as lemon is preserved with us. In the same manner, they preserve ginger when it is green, as also pods of pepper and this they eat with their meals.”
The Kannada text Lingapurana of Gurulinga Desika from 1594 CE mentions over 50 types of Indian pickles. We also find mention of pickles in the 17th Century in Śivatattvaratnākara, an encyclopedia of the Keladi King, Basavaraja.
The mango pickle supremacy in India is undeniable. It takes up a square inch in most Indian meals and if missing, the meal feels almost unfulfilling. Lesser of the favourites, yet still widely popular are pickles of green and red chilli, gooseberry (amla), tomato, and other vegetables or fruits, often mixed together. Pickles of meat are also popular in some parts of India –– in the north east where pork is widely eaten, pork pickle is a delicacy. In the south, fish, chicken, mutton, and even prawn pickles are prepared.
Each region globally lends so much of itself to what we eat. In their purest and raw forms, these ingredients are passed on to the hands of the people to be dealt with. It is amusing just how this process, over the passage of time, becomes identity-defining and the beginnings of culinary movements. Indian pickles are thus no less than part of our identities –– it is essentially what a part of our daily lives are made of, and a mould for our palate. Food is a large, if not the largest part, of Indians’ lives and the quintessential accompaniment, pickles, shall never be overlooked.
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