Pickles are an important part of any Indian meal. Known as achar in Hindi and oorgai in Tamil, most Indian households will have at least one kind of pickle in their fridge or larder. Part of the Indian culture and history for more than 4,000 years, it could be argued that the technique of pickling originated in India when people first started salting and curing food in brines to preserve it for long journeys.
Achar, a loanword of Persian origin, entered popular use as the Hindustani term for pickles under the Mughal Empire. In Persian, the word achar is defined as “powdered or salted meats, pickles, or fruits, preserved in salt, vinegar, honey, or syrup.” Early pickle recipes in Ayurvedic and Sangam period texts mention several varieties of pickles, including the earliest known mention of mango pickles. Nalachampu, a Sanskrit epic written by Trivikrama Bhatta in 915, describes pickles made from green mango, green peppercorns, long pepper, raw cardamom, lemon, lime, myrobalan, hog plum, stone apple, and fragrant manjack. Early medieval cookbooks published between 1025 and 1549 AD mention pickle recipes that use green mango, green peppercorns, long pepper, lemons and limes, turmeric root, mango-ginger root, ginger, radish, bitter gourd, cucumber, lotus root, and bamboo shoots. The religious text Lingapurana by Gurulinga Desika, published in 1594 mentions more than fifty kinds of pickles. Unique pickles made from edible flowers are also mentioned in the Ni’matnama cookbook published in 1500.
Chilli peppers were introduced to South Asia by Portuguese traders in ports controlled by the Mughal Empire on the western coast of Gujarat. It is unclear when red chilli peppers came to be used in pickles as they are today since medieval texts do not mention their use in pickles. Before the introduction of chilli peppers by the Portuguese, black pepper, long pepper, and Piper Chaba, in both fresh and dried forms, were the main source of heat in ancient and medieval pickles.
In India, there are two main types of pickles: pickles made with sesame or mustard oil, and pickles made without oil. Pickles without oil use salt to draw out the moisture from green mangoes or lemons to create a brine. A mixture of lemon or lime juice with salt or traditional sugarcane vinegar may also be used as brine. In some pickles from Gujarat and Rajasthan, jaggery is used as the main preserve. Homemade pickles are prepared in the summer. They are matured through exposure to sunlight for up to two weeks with the pickle traditionally covered with muslin while it is maturing.
Despite using the same main ingredients, differences in preparation techniques and spices have led to wide variation in Indian pickles. A mango pickle from South India tastes very different from one made in North India, as the southern states prefer sesame oil and tend to produce spicier pickles, while the northern states prefer mustard oil. In South India, most vegetables are sun-dried with spices, taking advantage of the immensely hot and sunny climate in the region. The sun-drying process naturally preserves the vegetables, along with spices and to speed up the process, vegetables may be cooked before drying.
While I like a good lemon or mixed vegetable pickle, my absolute favourite has to be mango pickles. I loved the different styles of mango pickles from all over the country, including avakkai and thokku from Tamil Nadu, Chunda from Gujarat and Punjabi-style mango pickles. I also love a good instant mango pickle that can be made in less than 15 minutes when one is in the mood for something spicy, but does not have the time to make pickles in the traditional way.
My mother’s signature pickle used to be the vadu mangai. Vadu Mangai or Mavadu is a pickle made from tiny tender baby mangoes and is a Tamil Nadu delicacy. The baby mangoes are pickled in a brine made from salt, red chilli powder and other spices and left in the hot summer sun for a few weeks until the mangoes shrivel up and absorb all the goodness of the brine. When ready, the tender mangoes are salty, spicy and oh-so-delicious and so good on a hot day with some rice and yoghurt. My mother was so famous in our family for this pickle that she used to make a few kgs of the pickle as soon as the baby mangoes come into the market. After making the pickle in large ceramic jars called pickle barnis, she would put aside some for my grandparents on both sides and pass it to them when we went to their homes. Over the years, as people moved away, my mother slowly started reducing the amount of pickle made and stopped making it a few years back. I miss my mother’s pickles but hope to learn how to make them so I can keep the tradition ongoing.
Over the past few years, I have learnt to make a few pickles and these now form a staple in my home. Earlier in the post, I have linked a few of the pickles I have made, so go ahead and check them out to make some quick pickles to spice up your meal.