What's in your pickle?

What's in your pickle?

We have reached our hotel in Jaisalmer late in the afternoon. The monsoon season has added greenery in the form of shrubs across the Thar Desert, and the humid air offers a light coolness from the otherwise scorching heat. Two peacocks have spread out their tail feathers, and prance in the corridor — a shower is around the corner, we wonder.

The centre table at the restaurant is spread with goodies — croissants, cakes, mithai from the halwai. But our eyes are on maas kachori that is being served hot and crunchy. We take the first one with some hesitation, claiming we are full from the late lunch. But end up eating two of them — the crispy sides, folded by skilled fingers, and the covering holding a marinated, lamb masala spiced with pepper, mathiana chillies and coriander.

A meaty treat

Meat is prepared differently in various parts of the country, and executive chef, Megh Singh, explains that they have an interesting spread of non-veg pickles too. Next day, at breakfast we get to taste these pickle with pyaaz kachoris. Dunked in mustard oil, we taste a chicken achar, which has the pungent punch of kasundi. The lamb achar is fiery with red chillies, and the meat is chewy, flavourful and heaty.

“Bhil nomabs, who were part of the Mughal army, pickled meat to preserve it when they were on the road. The locals too use this method to store meat, which doesn’t last long in the extreme environment. Pickling in brine or oil straightaway extends its life by months.”

Sweet, hot, spicy, tangy are words that describe this side-dish, which is like no other. There is such a wide variety of pickles, encompassing almost every vegetable, fruit, meat, fish and roe we know, being used as a primary ingredient. Combinations have been tried out and several have emerged as all time favourites. Mixed with spices, sugar, tamarind, jaggery, vinegar and oil, pickling helped preserve foods. The fine art of pickling derives from ancient expertise, and hallowed seasonal ritual.

Preserve it right

East Indian chef Michael Swamy explains: “Meats are often pickled with spices and vinegar and then preserved. Tired meat sausages are filled with a pickling mixture like the Goan sausages. Pickling spices are anise, cinnamon, clove and one uses a variety of vinegars and oils to produce different flavours and results. Pickling arose from the days of no refrigeration, where meats had to be kept and preserved for long journeys,” he says, adding that almost every region of India has them.

“Goans have turned pickling into an art form with their moiles, vindaloos, and sausages. The north east is full of pickled pork and other meats. The Mangaloreans also have a famous pickled meat and so does the Sholapur district. Interestingly, fish roe pickle by the Parsi community are made by Kohlas in Gujarat,” he explains.

Pickling techniques came to India, with the arrival of the humble cucumber in 2030 BC from the Tigris (Iraq) valley.

“It created the euphoria of pickling products in brine. Pickle is given its due mention in the Bible and Ayurvedic texts that praise its nutritive properties down the ages. Aristotle praised the curative powers of pickled cucumbers. Certain fruits like lemons and others rich in vitamins were preserved and fed to sailors to prevent scurvy and other ailments on long voyages. Around 4,000 years now, pickled pleasures have taken the world by everyone’s palates and taste buds, and pickles sharpen tongues in virtually every part of the world,” says chef Swamy.

World overview

The origin of pickles in world history dates back to World War II, executive chef of Kebab Korner at InterContinental in Mumbai and a food history buff, points out. When men went to war, they took gherkins, capers, peppers, and even meat with them. To ensure it sustained, they pickled to preserve it.

Long road home

Pickling came handy during Akbar and Maharana Pratap’s rule. Among their fighters were Bhils, who were nomads that had mastered the art of hide and kill. They would carry masalas from home and eat it with whatever they could find — quail, ducks and rabbit.

“In the cold, they would make a rabbit pickle, to beat the heat. In Punjab, on the other hand, there is a signature pickle recipe of Patiala Shahi made using wild boar. They would marinate it, use the entire animal, cut it, fry it, and add masala. This would last more than a year. In Nagaland, they make beef and pork pickles with bhutjhalokias. Lightly spiced, but fiery, this pickle kept Naga fighters warm during their travels. In Assam, they make another with boiled Buffalo tongue, which is cut into cubes and fried. Lastly in Garhwal, they made a gosht aachar, a sun-dried version,” chef Singh signs off.

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