‘Pickling’ is a process wherein we preserve food by immersing it in vinegar or salt brine, for an extended amount of time. Pickled food is found almost everywhere; like the kosher cucumber pickles in New York, salted duck eggs in China, Kimchi in Korea, Salsa in Mexico, Aam Ka Achar in India, and Miso in Japan. It is a substantial part of global culinary art and culture.
The most popular pickles in India are Chukh in Himachal Pradesh, Kolhapuri Thecha in Maharashtra, Gajar, Gobi, and Shalgam ka Achar in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, Avakaya in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, and Chicken and Shrimp Pickle in Kerala.
There are two broad methods of pickling. The first is to soak the food in vinegar. In this method, the bacteria formed has little chance of survival. Popular foods pickled in vinegar are cucumbers, jalapeno peppers, and olives.
The second method is to soak the food in brine to encourage fermentation, which helps in the growth of good bacteria. Along with the good bacteria, it can make the pickle vulnerable to harmful bacteria, which can spoil it. Examples of fermented pickles are tender mango, kimchi, green chilies, amla, and cucumber dill pickle.
In India, we use Sarson (Mustard) and Gingelly (Sesame) oil, Methi (Fenugreek) seeds, Turmeric, Hing (Asafoetida), rock salt, lime juice, buttermilk, and Aamchur (dried mango powder). Pickles are made out of vegetables, fruits, chicken, fish, mutton, beef, and seafood, which are quite popular among communities.
The History of Pickling
For ages, our forefathers have found ways to pickle foods in order to preserve surplus cultivated food for famine, long and hard winters, and other times of need. In fact, over two thousand years ago in China, the workers who build the Great Wall of China used to eat a kind of fermented cabbage, known as ‘Sauerkraut’.
Pickling is not just about preserving food, it is also about changing their taste and texture. It’s fascinating to observe that pickles from different cultures have greatly contributed to food preferences.
According to the New York Food Museum, pickling dates back to 2030 BC, where cucumbers brought from native India started the tradition of pickling in the Tigris Valley. In 850 BC, Cleopatra was said to attribute her beauty to her diet, consisting of pickles. Furthermore, the healing effects of cucumbers were praised by the great scholar Aristotle.
In India, every region makes its different style, taste, and texture of pickles with similar ingredients. Mango is one fruit that can be pickled in different styles; sweet, sour, spicy, or salty. In Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, a regional raw mango pickle, called ‘Avakaya’, is made.
Pickling requires the right amount of clean spices, oil, and natural preservatives.
Our grandmothers used to make large quantities of pickles, which lasted for more than a year. I remember my granny used to make delicious lemon pickles, the taste of which still lingers in my mouth! The best part was that the pickles were sundried, which made their shelf life longer.
I have fond memories of helping my mother make Narthangay (Citron) pickle, a dark greenish fruit similar to orange. A lady used to sell those, and we used to buy 50 to 100 citrons from her annually. After washing and drying them, we would sit with a large Bharani (ceramic jar), and drop into it piles of rock salt and turmeric powder.
The citrons were cut into halves, its juice was extracted, and put into another container. We would fill the halved pieces with the previously mentioned salt and turmeric powder, and carefully place them on a traditional bamboo Muram. We would leave them in the sunlight, and by evening, we used to collect and place them in the Bharani.
The next day, we would pour a little citron juice on all the dried Narthangay, and leave it to dry again. This process continued until all the Narthangay dried up. Nowadays, we can cut them into pieces and store them in airtight containers.
Another yummy pickle we make called Vadu Mangai (Kadugu Mangai), consists of small tender mangoes, soaked in brine. Once they shrink to a quarter of their original size, we add red chilli powder. The brine makes the tender mango pickle a real delicacy in our households. We also make pickles out of Amla (Gooseberries), mixed veggies, lemons, mangoes, Gongura leaves, and stuffed red chillies.
- Pickles in airtight and clean containers or jars prevent bacteria growth. Store them in a cool and dark place.
- Wash and sun-dry the fruits/vegetables to prevent any water from harming its shelf life.
- Use a dry spoon to mix in the salted ingredients on alternate days. Furthermore, use a dry knife while evenly cutting the vegetables.
- Use a Hing cake that has been pounded and dry roasted for adding and enhancing flavor.
- Spices and salts should be of excellent quality, and there should be no water present.
- The best oils for yummy pickles are sesame and mustard oil.
- It is best to use dry red chillies to make red chilli powder. Either sun-dry or dry roast them.
- Pick lemons that don’t have spots on their skin, and fresh and firm mangoes. Vegetables selected for pickling should be very clean; peel them if necessary.
- The time taken for the various pickling stages is of utmost importance; from drying the ingredients, roasting, allowing them to ferment, to adding spices, for delicious, long-shelf-life pickles.