What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about pickles? Well, pickles—or achaar as they are commonly known in India—are one of many traditional Indian concoctions that are hardly celebrated these days.
The history of pickles is quite interesting though, and it is older than we reckon. According to some, Cleopatra used a certain substance that was a pickle of sorts and it was hailed as the reason for her beauty. Pickles also find mention in the Bible and in Shakespearean plays. These accompaniments to a meal have been an integral part of history – dating as far back as 2030 BCE. At the time, cucumbers were pickled in the Tigris valley.
I recall my grandmother as one who was proficient in making pickles of various types. Her preparations are foremost on my mind whenever I think of these delicacies. The line-up was never-ending when it came to granny’s list. Interestingly, there are innumerable varieties of pickles found across the Indian subcontinent.
Ever the perfectionist
Ever the perfectionist, dida took great pride in outdoing herself on each new attempt – as if striving to better each batch from her previous ones. And outdid she did for each fresh batch was indeed better than the last. Hailing from a village, grandma seemed to be blessed with a heightened sense of taste. I vividly recall her statement each time she made a new variety. She would come over to me and whisper, “I’ve got a special gift for you.” She made sure I was always the first one to taste her new preparation.
Much to my delight, I would cherish each moment as I relished all the spices, the tanginess and the aromas too. I would swirl it around as though I was a pickle connoisseur. Following my stamp of approval, grandma would proudly present her new creation to the other members of the family for them to enjoy the amalgamation of myriad spices and ingredients. For the majority of us, her recipes are still intriguing – an unsolved series of mysteries that my mother has always attempted to unravel.
I would especially relish the mango pickles during winters when my friends craved mangoes. Considering winters are off-season for this fruit, I would then hold bragging rights while showing off a jar of my grandmother’s homemade preparation.
Grandma’s pickle ingenuity was unmatched
Much to my regret, I did not make note of the names of all her pickle varieties. It really would have been great had I penned down the names of the various kinds that I had the privilege to taste. I do recall a few though and these are the most precious ones (the ones I crave for now) and the various kinds may seem weird to many.
Can pickles possibly be made with eggplants? I mean who would imagine that orange and lemon peels could be made into a pickle, and that too a delicious one? A zesty combination of sweet and tangy flavour? This was particularly my favourite. How I wish my father had a time machine so that I could go back in time and preserve those precious glass jars filled with pickles and hide it from the old me from having it.
My grandmother only referred to certain pickles as ‘achaar’. Honestly, I initially did not understand the reason why this was so. It was only later I realised the reason for her preferred nomenclature. Achaar is the spicy version of pickle and it is indigenous to India. The topa kuler achaar was one of her special achaar creations. It is a popular Bengali dish found in almost every household in West Bengal and is especially known for its tart flavour. It is made with topa kul – a berry that is native to the state.
The berries are inundated with jaggery and spices, and this achaar is a great accompaniment to rice and curries. There was also grandma’s special achaar shelf and I would often take the liberty of sampling them just as little Krishna stole kheer from his mother. One vivid memory I hold is that she would almost always detect the theft but would choose turn a blind eye. In fact, she would, on occasion, offer me some more if I wanted.
A pickle jar was always earmarked for me
Reflecting on the past is always evocative and quite emotional at times. Having spent the bulk of my time this far in a boarding school, I have always awaited vacations impatiently. Without fail, grandma would keep a separate jar exclusively for me. She ensured it was untouched and would anticipate my remark on discovering it.
Much as being away from home does make me nostalgic, I have grown to take the pickle yearnings in stride. One aspect that shall always remain vivid is the sight of glass jars in her rack and the spices that would ooze out while savouring them. Well, the saddest part comes around when we neglect our traditional food delicacies and it becomes just another forgotten taste to our palettes.