Mango, Lime, Ginger, and Chilli,
even Fish, Prawn, Garlic and Tendli.
There is little
that we do not pickle.
Name any ingredient and some region of India probably has a pickle recipe for that. Think back to your childhood and about pickles in particular - from the special bottles, known as barnis, to the faint aroma of the spices that our grandmums used, pickles are about more than just taste and flavour. They are about nostalgia, memories and diversity, something that commercial pickles can only hope to match. In this episode of The Real Food Podcast, Vikram Doctor takes you on a journey across India, telling you about the mind-boggling variety of pickles that we make and what sets our pickles apart.
Unlike the vinegar and brine-based pickles usually found in Western countries, our pickles are predominately made using oil. This is a bit unusual. Oil, unlike salt and vinegar, doesn't destroy bacteria or desiccate the produce, two crucial aspects of pickling any ingredient. But, oil is where all the magic happens. Ananda Solomon, the executive chef at Vivanta by Taj - President, explains, "Pickle has life in it - it keeps on maturing, and oil helps in enhancing that." Simply put, the chemicals that give spices their flavour and aroma are enhanced by the use of oil.
The use of oil is also why pickle making in India is such an intricate ritual. Not only do we prefer using certain kinds of oil (mustard in the north and sesame down south), which are known to last longer, we also have elaborate processes of pre-cooking ingredients and drying them in the sun. Bangalore-based writer and author Kaveri Ponnapa has written an excellent piece in Scroll, which details the craft of making traditional Coorg pickles.
Unsurprisingly, Coorg isn't the only place that boasts of pickles endemic to a region. From the carrot pickle in North India to the mussels pickle in south, India has an impressive and unmatchable array of pickles. In fact, in a Google search with a generic term "pickle types", the first search result is Wikipedia's page on the list of Indian pickles. As Rita D'souza, the author of Pickles and Chutneys of India, tells Vikram, everything can be pickled. "Even potato can be pickled - that was surprising even for me!" says Rita.
It's difficult to get your hands on Rita's book, as well as others such as Usha's Pickle Digest. And, with more and more pickles being mass produced, it may seem as though we are forgetting the delightful flavours of homemade pickles in favour of the convenience that commercial pickles provide. But, there are some restaurants, like Taj Connemara's Raintree with its pickle trolley, that are giving them the importance they deserve. And, as a hopeful Rita points out, thanks to the internet, the pendulum is swinging towards the discovery of our culinary history and tradition.
Pickles are crucial to Indian cuisine and we need to enjoy them all.
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