Pickles: An Achari Kissa

They are the most delicious form of fermentation, they are great with their probiotic capabilities, and can transform any meal into a Sholay-like classic. But is that all to pickles and their ecstasy? Turns out, not. 

By Madhulika Dash 


Pickle making is old. Like really old. Date wise, it could easily be pinned at the same time as we began cooking or producing food – and for a large part of its existential history, the foremost role of pickle has been the preservation of food. More like making the winter stack for some regions, and the summer stock for others. 

From Sustainable to Indulgence

Somewhere in the way of performing the sustainability task, pickles in its years achieved the cult status of being an integral part of our daily meal that comes packed with its nutritive value. In fact, while the west discovered the ways of Garum and kimchis, India was flourishing with its finest puckering innovation to bring back taste to the recovering palate and in its idea of a balanced meal. 

After all, unlike the rest of the world where pickling was usually salted/sugared water or vinegar, we had graduated to bringing in a robust flavour with our spices – each combination tweaked to best suit not just the key ingredient or ingredients but also to aid the elevating of the nutritive value that when combined with food can create the perfect bite to heal. 

The use of spices was however one way that the Indian pickle or achar differed from that of the rest of the world, the other aspect was the technique and the use of oil that lend our pickles the shelf life, the ability to travel and also enough taste that could make it not just a condiment but the second, better half of the meal. (Think: paratha achar, matri achar and the beloved Khichdi-papad and achar). 


Pickle as Nomadic Need

Best suited for nomadic life, pickles were often the original prep to make food last for long and often served as the tastemaker during cooking, especially for those living in cold areas, deserts and arid land. This functionality while on one hand made pickles one of the most travelled foods in India and abroad, on the other, it eventually became the characteristics that defined the culinary practices of a community. 

The way pickles were made and the masala used could define the region it came from, and was the best showcase of the culinary culture and the produce. And this despite the fact that today most pickles have similar ingredients like the use of all preservative mustard, mustard oil, dry ginger and salt. There are still facets of every pickle that makes them unique to their region and to the culinary foundation. 

Tailormade To Need

One segment of achar that does it infinitely better and with more panache than the ever popular and omnipresent aam ka achar are the winter pickles. Diverse, multi-hued, winter pickles are not just an array of some of the seasonal best vegetables, meat and fruits but is a showcase of the Indian art of pickling. 

From pani ka achar to the simple sirke wala pyaaz to kachchi haldi pickle to murabba and even the novel mixed vegetable pickle, it is perhaps the finest tribute to the timeline of pickles that were created as we discovered more food and their preserve virtues. 

In fact, the winter coterie even houses pickles made of fruits that are still foraged like ber or koli as Odiyas would call it, and some that often are the equivalent of dish itself like the gobi-shalgam-gajar achar – a delightful, easy on the palate pickle speciality of the erstwhile Delhi/Punjab region that goes more elaborate with its key ingredients as your shift regionally.  But what makes this extremely addictive pickle amazing is not only its theekha (spicy) and khatta meeta (sweet-sour) variations but also the style of making pickles that is a clever mix of the oldest and the medieval. 


When Shakkar Made The Base

Much like our food that saw the entry of salt later than sugar, our pickles too were mostly made with sugar or shakkar – mostly jaggery – with citrus food adding the necessary flavour, contrast and aiding the preserving process. Of course, to ensure that the pickles stayed on for long in any condition, most ingredients that were pickled were picked right in the middle of the season when the produce were at the qualitative best (taste plus nutritive richness) and in abundance – the two essential qualities that once determined whether the produce could be pickled. 

Next came the water or moisture content. Ideally, a produce that could be sponged dry is considered best, and while today with salt and dehydrators most is possible, back in the day, it depended on the winter sun and how much that helped dry the produce. To ensure the process happened fast and evenly determined the different cuts that one sees in a pickle. 

Interestingly, the evolution of the cutting technique ensured not just vegetables like squash but tomatoes and even cherries could be brined or pickled. The culture that influenced most pickling culture in the mountains was of course China – given the similar one season of produce and harsh winters they had developed the way to preserve produce for future use. But the biggest contribution was in the form of salt or white gold that changed the way food, including meat, could be dried, preserved and even cooked. 

First Salt, Then Spice 

The arrival of salt and the flourish of the trade routes, both Silk and Spice, became the hallmark of how pickle making evolved across India, as methodology, spice and new ways of making achar travelled with people. Politics and horticulture evolution along with wellness science became the three pillars that designed different styles of making pickles and their consumption pattern. And with time, this trilogy helped curate variations that went beyond the original need of preserving excess food and functionality. 

Take the aam ka achar for instance. Depending upon which time of the season the pickle is made, it can be cooked to create a relish/jam kind of pickle to be had within the next few days; and the same mango once in its prime of produce will go through the whole rigmarole of sun drying, mixing and then seasoning in the sun before it matures over a long period of a month to be ready to be eaten.  

Kannada text Lingapurana of Gurulinga Desika from 1594 CE mentions over 50 types of pickles, whereas 17th Century Śivatattvaratnākara, an encyclopedia of the Keladi King, Basavaraja, mentions its rise into the royal meal. 


Cooked or Cured

The advent of the quick pickles that saw many fruits, herbs and produce turn into puckering delight  during the season became the game changer. Designed on the lines of a dish, these pickles while had the same mouthfeel of a pickle, some of the nutritive goodness included, it could be indulged in with more flourish as it was low on sodium. These cooked pickles by the middle ages in fact took a more prominent role in the feast table for the kind of all-palate pleasing flavour contrast they got to a dish like the inji puli, one of the important dishes in the Sadya. 

By medieval ages, these pickles had a bigger role to play across the food and mood board became the key focus of many formal meals where they acted both as a showcase of the culinary ingenuity as well as the surprise element on the plate that seemed to play the role of Salt in the taste box: in this case, threading the food story of the plate together. 

The Shalgam-Gajjar-Gobhi Fascination

For some parts, it became the high point of a new season, much like the shalgam-gajjar-gobhi ka achar. Traditionally, the pickle is made towards the end of the winters with the idea of enjoying nature's bounty for a few more months. Of course, depending on the produce, there were pickle variants of individual ingredients too, but this mixed vegetable pickle was a continuation to the winter flavours – and has a composition that is close to a dish rather than a pickle. 

Depending on the region one is in, the pickle can be made with a simple masala of coriander, mustard, hing and red chilli to a lavish one that has ginger and garlic too, and one that also has jaggery with roasted jeera-mirch powder as well. This can be cooked into an instant pickle or take the long winding way too. Although, says Chef Ravi Tokas, Culinary Head, Parat, “the taste of both styles are acutely addictive, the pickle that is made the traditional curing way does come with finer nuances and a more pronounced taste. 

Though, either way the shelf life of this winter special that is a  must-have during the last few weeks of winter, when the days become sunny, is for a few days eaten as a dish rather than a pickle. This explains why the pickle, especially that is cooked, is done with less salt than the traditional one. 


Pickles' Richness

Which brings us to the question, why were produce pickled? After all, freezing was another technique of preserving too, especially in the mountain areas, and for the mainland, the new season came with its share of produce as well. 

Turns out that while vacuum sealing or freezing, after balancing most winter vegetables, was a good way of keeping them for the next season in the mountains, the process of pickling was nutritionally better and also had added benefits like the mustard improves metabolic rate and acts as an anti-inflammatory agent too. It also  aids blood circulation and is antiseptic as well. Turmeric is an excellent antioxidant, anti inflammatory, analgesic and antiseptic and chillies the powerful analgesic and anti inflammatory that helps body to heal naturally.  

When one blanches produce or fruits, they tend to lose certain nutrients in water. And still stand the chance of getting spoiled if the freezing isn't done with proper removal of air. In pickling, this  isn't an issue as the fruit is sun dried first and then it is allowed to cook with preservatives that add the necessary flavour, helping the breakdown of the nutritive composition slowly, thus limiting any of it to escape. And in doing so develop a process that cranks up the fifth taste: umami. Thus, bringing forth a dish that is concentrated in nutrients, taste and probiotic. Result, only a small portion can bring in the goodness or crank it up too.