Pickling – of which the resulting food is called a pickle – is the process of preparing food by soaking it in a brine of salt, acid, oil or all three for preserving otherwise perishable foods for a duration that ranges from months to years. Food historians trace the process of pickling to ancient Egypt where fish and melons were pickled. The more common practice of pickling cucumbers however, dates back to about 3000 years in India itself. While the exact origins of the Indian word for pickles ‘achar’ are hard to trace, pickles under various names have been a part of Indian Cuisine as far back as the Harappan and Vedic eras. Pickling was probably carried along with other culinary lore as the Indus Valley civilization spread out and applied to new species of fruits and vegetables discovered along the way. Here is a lovely article by Vikram Doctor on an interesting bit of history around the mango pickle.
Interestingly pickles travelled across the world as Indians travelled to other countries. Which is why, there is a Cape Malay mango atjar in South Africa, a mango pickle in Fiji and so on.
The variety of pickles available in India is so astonishing that just the mango pickle itself has hundreds of variations. The avakai of the South will taste totally different from the aam achaar of the North even though both are mango based. We have as many varieties of mango pickles as there are dialects in our country. This diversity comes from the difference in the spices, oils, souring/sweetening agents and treatments used. There is also uniformity in this diversity. A uniformity that lies in the liberal use of spices, not necessarily to add fiery heat but to contribute flavour.
The flavouring spices used differ from region to region. In warmer south India, cooling spices like mustard, curry leaves and asafetida, are used while the cooler North favors warming spices like cloves, pepper and nigella seeds. Spices also play an additional role of being medicinal in nature; some like ginger, asafetida, and turmeric are added for their digestive properties. Others are added for specific functions like raw garlic for circulatory ailments or jangled nerves and black pepper to stimulate the appetite. The oil also varies – with sesame or gingelly oil common to the south and mustard oil preferred in the North – as does the acidifying agent – lime juice, tamarind, curd or a combination of these in the South and lime juice or vinegar in the North. When it is used, the sweetener – jaggery favored in the South and sugar in the north, also vary.
Pickle making has long been a forte of the women of the house with recipes being passed down from one generation of a family to the next. With the exception of some winter specials, a majority of mango pickles are made in Indian homes in the heat of the summer. Women will get together and spend several weeks preparing these pickles.
Rushina is always coming up with ways to celebrate food. She recently initiated the commemoration of some interesting Indian Food Observance Days with the objective of recognizing and celebrating Indian foods and food ways. One of the first days on her wish list was #AamAchaarDay to be celebrated on the 22nd of April each year. To mark the day, APB Cook Studio hosted a mango pickle exchange; a community cook-up with a difference. We invited five regional cuisine experts to teach a larger group of pickle lovers their signature regional mango pickles.
Rushina kick started the event by recounting her memories of watching pickle making. “In my family, there was an annual rotation of food production. Drying, pickling, bottling off food in seasons of plenty was a regular practice. Pickle making was a one of my favourite events in our food calendar. The ladies of the house would get together and peel, cut, prep and make mango pickles; chundo, murabbo, katki kairi, golkeri would be made and bottled for use throughout the year. It would be a day long exercise and we kids loved to be part of it, ‘helping’ stealing the drying mangoes, and absorbing all the gossip the adults indulged in. And that is what I wanted to recreate today, only instead of just Gujarati pickles we will do a signature pickles from different communities.”
Saee Koranne-Khandekar began by teaching a Maharashtrian pickle that is a family favourite documented in her family cookbook ‘The Gore Family Cook Book’. It is her grandmother ‘Mothi Aai’s’ Mohoricha Loncha’ or mustard pickle made of diced Rajapuri mango. It is customarily eaten with sheera in her family because they love the pungent spicy-sweet notes that cut the sweetness. Watch a short video of the same made by blogger Shweta Java, who joined us for our #AamAchaarDay celebration here.
Next on the lineup, was a Sindhi mango pickle called Khatti Bheendi made with grated mangoes taught by Usha Wadhwa. The Bheendi Khatti, is an absolutely delicious pickle of grated mangoes, redolent of spices like the kalonji and chilies, garlic, mace, fennel and more. It is traditionally stored in little muslin potlis suspended in a special brine, however some people choose to just mix it and fill it in bottles.
Heena Munshaw (Rushina’s mom) then demonstrated the famous Gujarati Chundo, a grated mango pickle, sun cooked in sugar and spiced with chilli powder. Read more about it on Rushina’s blog here.
Food blogger Geeta Sridhar taught the South Indian pickle Mavadu in which whole, baby mangoes are pickled in a castor oil, salt, mustard powder, chili and turmeric. The final pickle maker for the day was Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal who taught the Heeng ka Achaar; a recipe she learnt from her mother-in-law. Although it is called heeng ka achaar, termed after the asafetida that is the primary flavour, the pickle is made with sliced raw mangoes. A heart-warming touch was added to this recipe when Rushina’s 9- year old daughter, Natasha stepped in to lend her mom a helping hand.
In addition to the five pickles, Rhea-Mitra Dalal involved everyone in making the popular Bengali, sweet & sour Kancha Aamer or raw mango chutney packed with the earthy flavour of mustard. And renowned blogger Harini Prakash added a melodious touch to the event with a Tamil song that she learnt as a child when the ritual of pickle making took place in her ancestral home.
After all the pickle making was done, Team APB served up a simple lunch of dal, rice and parathas augmented with more mango goodness like Rushina’s mom’s Kairi nu Shaak and the Parsi Kairi Gosht (mutton made with green mango) brought by Kurush Dalal who’s catering enterprise Katy’s Kitchen has many heirloom Parsi recipes on its menu.
#AamAchaarDay was an absolute success! It was amazing to see how such a simple thought struck a chord with so many. We learned so many stories, memories, recipes and traditions! To share the wonderful celebration, Rushina conducted a Facebook Live panel discussion with the pickle makers who joined us that reached an audience of more than 1 million! We were enthralled by the anecdotes, memories and more shared with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and more. It was so exciting to hear from pickle enthusiasts from all over the country. The hashtag #AamAchaarDay actually trended on Twitter on the evening of 22nd April, organically reaching out to an audience of around 2 million while our Instagram feed was full of beautiful pictures of mango pickles.
Where pickles were once a form of preserving excess produce to tide over the seasons of want, today they are no longer a need based requirement. But it is clear Indians love their pickles. In fact, the hot sauce clubs of America have nothing on the pickle fanatics of India.
Have a look at some of the blog posts by other pickle lovers like: