On my dining table are three glass jars that once contained jam, now they are proud holders of lehsun (garlic), kairi (raw mango), and mirchi (chilli) ke achar. We got them from Lucknow, when we visited my husband’s family last September. Their unique flavours shifts from somewhat pungent to slightly tangy and extremely spicy. At lunch, they scream – what’s your mood today? Pick me! And each one promises to add a unique shift to our desi meals.

Peppered with memories and salted with longing, a pickle lover remembers the making of the tempting achar at her ancestral home in the Konkan!

– The Indian Trumpet’s Pickle Special Edition

It’s interesting how a tiny spoon of the masala from those glass bottles can uplift the taste of even the simplest dal chawal. Like a magic potion. That unique blend of salt, hing, lal mirch, haldi, and other Indian spices when mixed with salt, spices and oil can make
mouths water in an instant. That’s a guarantee. Most often, they take me down the memory lane. As a kid, I remember how these were painstakingly made and stored at my grandmother’s home in a small village on the western coast of Maharashtra.

As soon as the first batch of raw mangoes were brought home from our family baagh (fruit orchard), the firmest one were chopped off in the right size with a big knife on platform made from a bark of a tree. “They mustn’t be yellow,” warned my granny and aunts. “It will defeat the purpose of the mango achar, which must be tangy and spicy — not sweet. Yellow on the inside means they are done and sweet. It has to be raw,” they spoke to each other rather nonchalantly, reiterating what both already knew.

In hindsight, it must have been for us cousins to hear and register the wisdom they were trying to pass down to us in the hope that we will take it forward. Most of us hovered around the site to get our share of the tangy loot. The boys indulged too. The older ones refrained – for them, it was a girl thing. The mangoes were spread on old cotton sarees and bedsheets in the aangan (frontyard), and we were quick to shift our play site next to it. No wonder then, the strictest of aunts was sent to man the location. Children couldn’t be trusted – just like the birds, who too couldn’t resist the temptation and often flew way with a few pieces of the fruit.

Sunshine love

Out came the large brown and white porcelain jars to be sun dried as well, and so we were instructed to be extra careful around them. Inside the kitchen, the scene was intense. Meticulous preparations were in full swing. The masalas had to be roasted, ready to be ground. Meanwhile, salt and red chilli powder is applied to a small batch and served at lunch – a quick makeshift solutions for mouths that can’t stop watering.

As the sun came down, the strict aunt carefully wrapped the cloth with its contents and took them inside to a safe corner. Away from the children and possible rodents, but mostly children. Next morning, it was brought out again. This exercise continued the next day, and the following one, till the fruit shrunk to just the right size. Not too dry, but sans the moisture. Wetness is the enemy of preservation – another wisdom tried to be passed down.

Spice it up

Now is the crucial time – the mixing of spices with the dried fruit. The turmeric, chilly, mustard, asafetida, salt, and the oil – in just the right measure. It needed the nod of the woman head of the house – my grandmother, who knew exactly what a grain of salt more could do to the whole batch. It was all about the right amount and there was no scope for mistakes. It had to be perfect. This wasn’t about the next meal — it was about the whole next year. This was a saviour on rainy days when fresh food can be difficult to procure.
The spices were ground using the traditional flat stone grinder. Not the electric mixer – it’s not the same – I can vouch for it. The paste was mixed with oil and smeared on the dried mango pieces. The dark red masala, evenly spreading on the flesh of the fruit, thanks to the spiced oil. Slurppp! It already looked so delicious that it was difficult to resist. Trying to steal at this stage meant a whack on the young, thieving hands.

The waiting…

Now came the hardest part. You have the ready pickle right in front of you, but you can’t eat. “It’s too fresh, let it sit for at least a few days till the flavour develops,” was the reply from the elders. As the rich and spicy pickle entered the large porcelain jars, everyone drooled. Even the strict aunt couldn’t hide her temptation. The mouthwatering treat had that magical effect – it could make the toughest hearts melt.

The making of an achar is a lesson in patience. Sunlight, salt and spices, love, flat roof, generations passed down recipes – pickles aren’t an instant thing. You have to witness its making to appreciate the fine distinction. Sometimes I feel because it is a time-consuming, labour of love, the two-minute noodles generation may never be able to understand why the homemade pickles taste so different than the ones picked off the shelf. Because it is made with love, something even the meanest ad campaigns can’t sell.

Keep blowing the Trumpet! This & many more stories await in the pages!