Vantage point

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Emotional Just Achaar

This post is dedicated to Vikram Doctor, the best food writer in the world, because it was email exchanges with him that spurred me to write it.

A repeated instance of cognitive dissonance I face even after being in the US for almost 3 years is calling that soggy slice of cucumber a "pickle". Whenever I am ordering a hamburger and they ask me "Would you like pickle on that?", I say "Yes", when I actually want to say "I really would like to try some sort of a pickle in the burger, but since you don't have that, yes, vinegary cucumber slices will do."

Pickles in the US, for the uninitiated, are cucumber slices soaked in vinegar or brine, and left to ferment. But for an Indian, pickle, or the hindi achaar, or the marathi loNchey is just so fundamentally different. Yes, it has a core ingredient like the cucumber for Americans.... most Indian pickles use raw mangoes. But the juice is what makes the pickle such a rich and diverse cultural experience. It has your basics - lots of oil, lots of salt and chilli powder. It is the mixing and matching of other ingredients - whole mustard seeds, split mustard seeds, ginger pieces, ginger paste, sesame, poppy, and anything else that blends in, that makes Indian pickles such a treatise-worthy concoction. But at the end of the day, it is the core ingredient, i.e. whatever is being pickled - vegetable, fruit or meat, that gives the pickle its true character. And just like the definitive Indian fruit remains the mango, the definitive pickling object remains its younger version - the raw mango.

Growing up in Pune, I didn't really develop a taste for pickles until I was in my teens. But I was intimately involved in the world of pickling way before. For as long as I can remember, whenever the month of April rolled around, my dad would go to the market and get a big bag of raw mangoes. We'd rent a big version of the typically marathi slicing device (that I'd love to have in the US) called विळी which is basically this. Dad, being the strongest, would slice the mangoes. I was in charge of separating the mango seeds, and peeling off the plasticky layer from the inside of the seed cover. And my younger sister, armed with a white cloth, would wipe them dry. Mom would prepare the gravy/juice/marinade, whatever you call it. And once it was done, she would take the mango pieces we worked on, and immerse them.

Later on, some roles changed. In my teens, I started chopping the mangoes, and Dad would share the cleaning and drying duties with my sister. What remained common through all those years was, that pickle-making remained an annual summer ritual our happy nuclear family indulged in for over a decade. Other people barbecue, fly-fish, hunt, camp, trek, hike, or even garden. Us Sabnises? We pickled!

Now, the family pickle we made, stored in huge porcelain jars to be used until the next year, went through several phases of its own. Through the summer and the monsoons, the mangoes retained their crunchiness, making them appropriate to eat by themselves or with chappatis. You needed to either press down hard with a spoon to cut off a smaller piece, or then place it between your teeth and bite.

By the time winter came around however, they were soggy. The slightest of pressure from your fingers would separate a piece. And that is the state most commercially available Indian pickles are in. Nothing wrong with that of course. The juice has completely permeated the mango, imbuing it with those strong and heady flavors. Divine to eat with dal-and-rice, or anything else with rice, or even just by itself. But if you limit yourself to store-bought pickles, you are missing out on the crunchy new-pickle taste.

The variation in the juices is mind-boggling too, not just across the country or within a state, but even within a city! Only a Punekar can truly appreciate the differences between mango pickles made from Bedekar masala, Pravin masala, Kay-Pra masala, and your mom/grandmom's made-from-scratch masala. And then there are variations from Konkan, South Maharashtra (Kolhapur-Miraj-Sangli...Hi Pushkar!), Khandesh, Marathwada and Vidarbha. I am not fully aware of the ingredient differences between them. So obviously, I'd have to do sooooo much more research to talk about how pickles from the rest of India are.

But one non-Marathi pickle that remains a favorite is the avakai from Andhra. Again, perhaps due to the family ritual. Our family spent 1986-87 in a small town called Rajahmundry on the banks of the Godavari. So that year, my mom decided to make the pickle local Andhra style - Avakai. And I have to say, it's the best pickle she has ever made. She got help and inputs from local aunty, so she could never replicate the success after we moved to Pune. But even now, when I spot a jar that says Avakai in Jersey or Pittsburgh, I lunge for it.

That's enough of the mango pickles though. As I grew up, I realized that other things could be pickled too. Amlas (gooseberrys), carrots, onions, and yummmm...prawns/shrimp. Prawns pickles were my first foray into the world of non-veg pickles. And they were just so divinely different from how prawns tasted in the usual curry or fried form. Even today, I have a jar of prawns pickled in my kitchen that I eat as an accompaniment with my malvani tilapia or bass curry (maybe I should send the recipe to the world-famous-among-marathi-gluttons Nupur) and rice.

But later I was introduced to the world of fish, beef, pork, chicken giblet, chicken breast, boiled egg pickles, all done in the Indian fashion. I still remember the first time I tasted a fish pickle. A Bengali friend in IIML had brought to the mess with him a jar of fish (I think hilsa) pickle, and I was digging into it so frequently, he finally had to wrest it from my fingers and hide it so there would be some left for him.

Since then, I have savored and enjoyed pickles involving all sorts of animals and seafood. I have often contemplated pickling something non-vegetarian myself, but have been too lazy to do it so far. Maybe this summer?

But I have to say, as awesome as those prawns, pork, egg, chicken pickles are, the undisputed KING of pickles in my mind remains the raw mango. There is something just fundamentally satisfying about using your fingers to prepare a morsel of simple daal and steamed basmati rice, mixing with it a piece of the mango slice that you have broken off using your nail, and a healthy portion of the spicy juice, and putting it in your mouth. Your tongue can't help but have a small orgasm of its own as it tastes the blend of all those tastes.

So this is my Independence day July 4th resolution - to try and locate raw mangoes in the North-Easterm United states and pickle them. And also pickle some shrimp, sliced beef and chicken giblets. Want to come over and taste them?