“It just adds that sour, spicy, savory element to any meal,” 🥒
January 15, 2020 1:38 PM   Subscribe

A Brief History Of The Humble Indian Pickle [The Culture Trip] “From selecting the right raw materials to carefully preparing the ingredients, from assembling the pickles to adding spices and then waiting for the pickle to be finally ready – a lasting memory of childhood vacations is that of helping our grandmothers make āchār. Those big ceramic jars filled to the brim with fresh pickles sitting under the sun on terraces evoke memories of carefree holidays. No meal is complete without a spoonful of the sweet, sour, spicy and mouthwatering Indian pickle. Here’s a look at its history. Known by various names across the country – Uppinakaayi in Kannada, Pachadi in Telgu, Urukai in Tamil, Uppillittuthu in Malayalam, Loncha in Marathi, Athanu in Gujarati and Āchār in Hindi – pickle making, as a tradition, goes back thousands of years.”

• Decoding the Indian culinary art of the achaar [The Indian Express]
““In the Indian subcontinent, unlike in other parts of the world, pickling with oil emerged as the dominant technique. Davison writes, “In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, pickles are prepared in mustard or sesame oil combined with salt and spices. The most popular pickles prepared this way, and exported the world over is mango. The green, unripe mangoes may be left whole, stuffed with spices, sliced, grated, raw or cooked…The hot sunny days are exploited in making the pickles. Often, the fruit and vegetables are salted and dried out in the sun before being packed in jars with spices and oil. The jars of pickles are placed back in the sun for up to one month, which aids preservation: the light and heat destroy mould spores and bacteria.”””
• Indian Pickle Is The Greatest Condiment On The Subcontinent [Food Republic]
“Any food writer encounters the following question: “What’s your favorite food?” No food writer should have an answer at the ready. I certainly don’t — never have. I couldn’t possibly. I do have a favorite condiment, though: the mustard-cured Indian pickles known as achar, or simply “pickle.” As one would with most beloved condiments, I use it to make a very simple thing burst with flavor. French fries don’t burst with flavor all on their own, but dunk one in ketchup, Dijon or mayo (depending on where in the world you are) and watch that whole fried pile disappear. We’re not talking about fries, though. We’re talking about rice, the undisputed king of the subcontinent. Now let’s talk subcondiments. Basmati rice mixed with yogurt is India’s answer to Asian congee/juk, British mash or any bare-bones starch or grain-based, porridge-type sustenance dish. Sometimes lentils are involved, and sometimes this humble mixture is it. It’s frequently infants’ first solid food. Indians from the western state of Gujarat eat rice and yogurt following a meal as a kind of digestif. Delicious and fortifying as fragrant, earthy basmati and tangy, fresh, probiotic- and protein-rich yogurt may be by themselves or together, some would say it’s missing a certain something, and that something is a tangy, pungent, mustard oil-cured fruit or vegetable.”
• Achar Is the Indian Condiment You've Been Missing Out On [Tasting Tables]
“Every culture has a catchall condiment—that one sauce you can put on literally anything and it will taste great (think: hoisin, harissa, pebre). For Indians, it’s achar (also spelled achaar), a combo of sliced fruits and vegetables pickled in oil and spices that has the power to vivify even the most tired bowl of rice. For most Indian families, achar is a dinnertime condiment staple. But when I moved into my own apartment in New York a few years ago, achar was notably absent; this is because it’s time intensive to make at home, and most store-bought versions are loaded with salt and preservatives. [...] But why the focus on achar? "Most people know about chutney," Agrawal says, "But achar is what Indians really put on everything. It’s an ever-present condiment, like a hot sauce or a Sriracha." She has long been obsessed with collecting all different types of the pickled condiment, from mango to lotus root to lemon: "When I go to India, I scour all the markets, and I’ll get jars of achar from each of my relatives when I see them."”
• A global guide to pickles [The Guardian]
“"If you took pickles out of Indian society," Kochhar says, "I don't think it would survive." The country has changed dramatically in recent years, with a growing economy and expanding middle class, but some things stay the same. "I would say 90% of people still live the old lifestyles. In old Delhi, for instance, people still have small houses with flat roofs where they dry their pickles." Vinegar, he says, is seldom used. "We generally rely on sunlight, salt and spices," says Kochhar. But that's the only constant – mango and lime achars are the best-known Indian pickles, almost everything can be made into achar, including meat and seafood. "Meat pickles are very important in places like Rajasthan, which is dry and arid, and where they can't grow many things," says Kochhar. "They have plenty of sun so whatever little produce they get they can pickle it and use it over the months ahead." Mustard oil, ginger and garlic, and achari masala or panch phoron – literally five spices (fenugreek, mustard, fennel, cumin and black caraway seeds) – are the basis for many north Indian pickles, along with mango powder and chillis. A south Indian lime achar, however, may just involve lime, crushed chilli and coriander – either salted or matured in the sun. Like all pickles, achar (Indian pickle) has been developed not just to add extra bite and draw out the flavour of particular dishes, but to ensure ingredients only available in one season can be eaten all year round.”
• In praise of the pickle [Hindustan Times]
“I bring up all this because many of us are still confused, if not misled, by the use of the term ‘pickle’. In the West, the term usually refers to a vegetable (or an egg or meat) that has been preserved by being dunked in brine or vinegar. (And in the case of Branston, the term pickle is virtually meaningless.) The British were the people who started calling our achaars pickles. But that’s because they hardly understood Indian food. Our achaars are a completely separate category and have been a part of Indian cuisine almost from the time the first meals were recorded. [...] Each country has different sauces. The British, who knew nothing about flavour, stuck to Worcestershire sauce, made from an old Indian recipe. The French seem incapable of creating any sauce without some use of animal-derived ingredient – their sauces will have eggs, milk, butter, etc. Indian pickles differ from most other accompaniments (such as, say, the spicy Thai sauces) by being based on oil. I can’t think of too many other cuisines that rely as much on fruit and vegetables, mixed with spices and preserved in oil. It is the oil (and perhaps the sun-drying of ingredients at an early stage in the process) that gives our pickles their long shelf-lives.”
posted by Fizz (44 comments total) 91 users marked this as a favorite
 
mfw this post
posted by lalochezia at 1:45 PM on January 15 [7 favorites]


My dog I’m hungry now.

Fizz, this is a lovely post. And a timely reminder that I need to pin my mother down and extract her various pickle recipes from her, instead of just waiting for her to load me up with old jam jars full of pickles at Christmas each year.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 1:48 PM on January 15 [8 favorites]


This pickle-lover salutes you for this post.
posted by praemunire at 2:03 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


I miss the Indian place which had mango pickle. For me a little goes a long way but DAMN it’s good!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 2:13 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Three-ish decades ago I got to try mango pickle made by a friend's mum and grandmum. Three-ish decades later I still dream of it. If there is a true Good Place, it will be stocked with mango pickle.
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 2:13 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


Speaking of pickles; I am a big fan of Andhra pickles. I think they are the best. If you have access to an Indian grocery store, try Priya or Telugu brands for that authentic taste.

BTAIM; NYT recently published an article by Tejal Rao ; that showcased India's so called Pickle Queen; whose book can be downloaded from Amazon. Behold; Usha's Pickle Digest. She is now working on a compendium of Rasams from South India; which I cannot wait.
posted by indianbadger1 at 2:13 PM on January 15 [16 favorites]


I miss the Indian place which had mango pickle.

I do know that many major super-markets/grocery stores are now stocking this with more regularity. It might still be shoehorned into the "ethnic" or "international" section. Whatever that means, since as far as I can tell, all the foods we eat are from many different parts of the world, but that's whole other discussion.

Also, you can order some achar from most online Amazon-esque types of companies. There are options.
posted by Fizz at 2:15 PM on January 15 [4 favorites]


Just fascinating. The second article in particular weaves together strands of food science, history, colonialism, traditional medicine, emigration, invisible domestic labor… pickles as entryway to everything, woven into so many aspects of life.
posted by snowmentality at 2:20 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


I can't read any of this without my mouth literally starting to water, thanks Fizz!
posted by lepus at 2:29 PM on January 15 [4 favorites]


I can't read any of this without my mouth literally starting to water, thanks Fizz!

Yes!

Count me among the people who love a good hot pickle, mango in particular. But for all of the pickle I've eaten over the years, I haven't really explored their history and background.

So, this is fantastic and super-informative. Thank you.

*wipes drool from corner of mouth, continues reading*
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:51 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


I can't read any of this without my mouth literally starting to water, thanks Fizz!

Same, and I just got slightly lightheaded and giddy, because that's what the most piquant pickles seem to do to me, and I guess my endorphins are primed to flow at the mere suggestion of them.
posted by vverse23 at 3:04 PM on January 15


I can’t say that Indian pickles are the best pickles, since I love all pickles in their own ways, but a world without Indian pickles would be a world unworthy of existing. They are so so tasty.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:24 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Oh good post! I love pickles from the Subcontinent! I really like lime pickles and garlic pickle but I have a soft spot for gunda and shatkora pickles. I remember very clearly the first time I ate them - my school friend said to me "I'm not sure if you will like these. They are a bit strong." So I accepted the challenge... after I picked my head off the ground I knew I was in love.
posted by Ashwagandha at 3:24 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


After reading all of the other comments here I'm ashamed to say that I've never had achar (unless it was incorporated into some other dish) even though growing up we always had a couple of jars in the fridge and in fact my mom still keeps a couple of jars of them in our fridge. I like pickles in general but achar always just seemed too intense.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:25 PM on January 15


This was super educational reading for me. I make a lot of different kinds of pickles (of the vinegar variety) and brined stuff and fermented things but I had no idea about this specific process and the pickling in oil. I've had a few varieties of Indian pickle and I knew there was something different in terms of the preservation method but I never would have guessed! Very cool.
posted by primalux at 3:43 PM on January 15


I still miss the mango pickle made by an Indian restaurant I used to frequent 10 years ago (in Munich, of all places). I tried recreating it once but it didn‘t come out right. One time in a fit of desperation I went to the local well-stocked Indian market and bought all varieties they had to offer (about 7 I think). None of them came close. Maybe I should go looking again...my life seems unfulfilled.
posted by The Toad at 3:55 PM on January 15


I thought I didn't care for Indian pickles up until this summer when I had the most delicious mango pickle at an Indian place in Valencia Spain of all places and now I will be chasing that deliciousness for the rest of my life because none of the others seem to measure up (I find them too salty without the sour sweetness to back them up)

That said, I currently have the ingredients in my fridge and pantry to make my own mango pickle so I hope to get there eventually.
posted by urbanlenny at 3:55 PM on January 15


Jinx, urbanlenny. We‘re all looking for that one pickle, it seems.
posted by The Toad at 3:57 PM on January 15 [5 favorites]


I had mixed achar for the first time recently, and something about the treatment of texture stood out. The way the green mango was sliced with seed and all, the very crunchy bitter gourd, it all seemed firmer than any preserved vegetable has a right to be. Entirely unlike anything and like you all, I want mooore.
posted by joeyh at 4:19 PM on January 15


I do know that many major super-markets/grocery stores are now stocking this with more regularity. It might still be shoehorned into the "ethnic" or "international" section.

Unfortunately, not the one I stopped at on the way home, grumble grumble grumble.

(great post, Fizz!)
posted by soundguy99 at 4:48 PM on January 15


I’m curious about the microbial difference between oil pickle and water pickle. Lots of non-biologist discussions of recipes but I can’t find anything so much as mentioning if it’s still lactobacillus, or what. Perhaps if I weren’t limited to English...
posted by clew at 5:29 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


I will savor all of these links. It's always so great to see a FPP of something where you're instantly "I love this thing!" and also "I don't know a lot about this thing!"
This is so happy making. Thanks, Fizz. Flagged as fantastic. (Edit: I mean favorite not flagged bc I am bad w words)
posted by pointystick at 5:38 PM on January 15


Counter (well, more like slightly different) argument from my Indian coworker, via Slack:

hm I'd disagree
they're good, but they're not that great
I think there are better pickles
and in terms of condiments, I'd say there are better ones even within Indian food culture
"But achar is what Indians really put on everything. It’s an ever-present condiment, like a hot sauce or a Sriracha."
this is only half true
everybody has it
but we don't put it on everything
and it doesn't make sense to
it's not a sauce that you can just pop on pizza
Indian yogurt and achaar are both things my mom always had around growing up
(and still does)
but we'd only eat the achaar for certain dishes or just off-hand occasional snacking
it's like pickles in other cultures
a burger without pickles
would be strange, but you're not doing pickles and spaghetti
The British, who knew nothing about flavour, stuck to Worcestershire sauce, made from an old Indian recipe.
yooo that's whack and false also
Worcestershire sauce is more closely related to south asian fish sauce than Indian sauces
posted by sideshow at 6:09 PM on January 15 [9 favorites]


I'm so hungry now!

My favorites: mustardy gingery green chili achar with beef keema, sour mango achar with dal and rice, relatively mild mixed veggie achar spread on toast or on a corn tortilla for a midnight snack...
posted by moonmilk at 6:09 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Nom! Midnight party at moonmilk’s!
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 6:40 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


> Counter (well, more like slightly different) argument from my Indian coworker, via Slack:

What argument is being countered, though? Your coworker has different food preferences, that doesn't suddenly negate the other people's preferences, which still exist. I'm guessing your coworker isn't presuming to speak for all people of Indian descent, so it's a little weird to see someone's opinions presented as evidence for the existence of different people liking different things, but I can understand being eager to present additional points of view (even when they're not your own) 🙂
posted by rather be jorting at 7:09 PM on January 15 [6 favorites]


Would someone be able to identify what style of pickle Bolst''s would most closely resemble? I understood that they are produced in the Gujarati area, but I don't know what the accurate description is of that pickle type (given its colonial origins, etc..)?
posted by NorthernAutumn at 7:09 PM on January 15


Goddamn, I love Indian pickle.

Has anyone here had kuchela, from Trinidad? It's definitely in the Indian pickle vein, given the oil and green mango and whatnot, and is easily one of the greatest condiments in the pantheon of delicious side treats.
posted by heteronym at 7:32 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


The British, who knew nothing about flavour, stuck to Worcestershire sauce, made from an old Indian recipe.

yooo that's whack and false also
Worcestershire sauce is more closely related to south asian fish sauce than Indian sauces


Kind of? I don't know that it's completely false, Lea and Perrins say that the recipe came from a request by the former governor of Bengal. The original recipe had tamarind pulp, cloves, lemons, and pickles. The fermented fish was added later.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:48 PM on January 15 [6 favorites]


Pickle status: amateur! So much to read and discover. But after dinner, methinks. Thanks for the brief(?!) and delicious history overview!
posted by lemon_icing at 7:53 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the supposed history of Worcestershire sauce is ambiguous, and likely just a fun bit of marketing that fulfills several different functions: establishing exotic origins, adding an aura of additional legitimacy via an enterprising British Lord (for whom no corroborating records can be found), and painting the 2 British chemists in a quaint, dutiful light. Great little tale for ad copy.

On a different note, I liked reading the Tasting Table profile on Chitra Agrawal, and the details of why she decided to focus on achar and start Brooklyn Delhi provide such an interesting contrast to the vaguer origins of, say, Lea and Perrin's Worcestershire sauce. It's terrific reading about a chef who enjoys her culture's food so much that she ends up sharing that enjoyment with countless others as well, via so many different ways beyond just cooking. Blogging, writing a cookbook, creating her own versions and updates on beloved cultural mainstays, starting a company - any one of those efforts would have been a lot, lol.

I've had various pickled vegetables with rice before, but not achar - now I'm curious! Time to check out more of these links now that I've had dinner. :D
posted by rather be jorting at 8:33 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


People hanging out for mango pickle in pickle deserts may be satisfied by amba, which
is more likely to be available in places with large Jewish or Middle Eastern populations. It's sour/bitter, more liquid than most achar, and I would judge that its flavour comes (apart from the unripe mango) more from turmeric, pepper, and fenugreek than from mustard oil. I like it on rice, particularly with lentils and some vegetables, but Iraqis often put it on flatbread or in pita sandwiches.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:05 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


When I discovered hot mango pickle I ate it straight of the jar like a monster, in truly ungodly amounts. During that phase, few things were as sad to me as scraping the bottom of the jar for that last bit of sour/salty/hot/sweet goodness. Really looking forward to learning more through those links - add me to those whose mouth is watering!
posted by DingoMutt at 9:25 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Got to say, I agree with sideshow's Indian co-worker. We make our own achaar at home (or rather one aunt makes it for the entire extended family) and it's definitely not some sort of all-purpose condiment the way some people use hot sauce.
posted by tavegyl at 9:54 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


My friend’s dad used to make what he called “char” with lemons, no idea where he got the recipe since he made it since the 70s and was about the least Indian person you can imagine. Unfortunately he passed before passing his recipe along so nobody else in the family really knows how to make it.

I was going to try to recreate it for my friend with the help of an Indian coworker and friend with whom I had long conversations about food and who was an excellent cook, and we got down to the point of starting to collect her family’s methods which varied depending on the thickness of the lemon skin. Unfortunately she too became ill and passed away of cancer before she was able to collect the methods so the project has kind of stalled out. We do have a lemon tree in our backyard though and I think this may be the year I finally get around to attempting my own.
posted by mikesch at 11:43 PM on January 15


I definitely loooooove achaar with rice, especially when having banana leaf rice. But really it's between any of the yoghurt-y stuff eg tairu or raita or acha, when i want to cut through the fat and cream. But yeah, it's not quite an everything sauce, but it's a great accompaniment. Now, regional practices definitely differ though. I can only tell you the Malaysian custom by way of South India.

Now, about Worcestershire sauce, just from the ingredients alone, you can tell it's got more Southeast Asian origins, but... heeey *shrug* My other citation is the fact it's probably the only region left where the cultural practice of fish sauces ala the Romans survived.

On that note, as a reflection of our deep historical links, vinegared vegetables known as acar exists in Malay Archipelago cuisine, but they're not oil-pickled, just plain vinegar, though limes is more popular up north from Thailand onwards.
posted by cendawanita at 12:39 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


What I'm wondering is, why did pickles reach such culinary heights in India and South East Asia, but not elsewhere, even in places like the Mediterranean with a similar climate and similar vegetation?
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:54 AM on January 16


Would someone be able to identify what style of pickle Bolst''s would most closely resemble? I understood that they are produced in the Gujarati area, but I don't know what the accurate description is of that pickle type (given its colonial origins, etc..)?

Wait, Bolsts makes pickle? Their hot curry powder is my standby for when I can’t be asked to make my own spice mixtures, or just don’t have the time, to the point where my husband can instantly identify it, no matter what I’ve put it in. It’s very distinctive! I think I got the recommendation from a Madhur Jaffrey book, and we love it so much I’d be very interested to try their pickle.

This is a wonderful post, thank you so much, Fizz.
posted by skybluepink at 5:06 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Lemon pickle is best pickle.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:38 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I love Indian pickle but I always feel a bit guilty using it because the flavor of the pickle dominates whatever else I'm eating. Maybe that's because I'm using too much but it's so, so good. Just two days ago I made myself a simple pulao and a dal, carefully spiced and delicious on their own. Ended up scarfing it down with lots of pickle though and, well, it was all great but I think I got the balance wrong.

One favorite breakfast snack is American cottage cheese with a little pickle mixed in. Sounds weird but it's not that far off paneer.

I don't understand why American stores don't stock Indian pickle more often. I often can't find it, even in San Francisco, even in the awful "ethnic" aisle between the chop suey mix and the jars of gefilte fish. Fortunately I have access to good Indian grocery stores (including a new one in SF, at 22nd and Mission). If you're desperate Amazon has overpriced options: this Mother's mixed pickle is pretty good.

Last trip to Vik's I came home with a jar of Gongura Pickle. Gongura is my new favorite thing, a green leaf with a nice sour flavor. My local Indian delivery place used to make a gongura+saag paneer dish which I loved. It's sort of odd as a pickle, it dissolves into a uniform green paste. But so delicious.

it's not a sauce that you can just pop on pizza

Oh but you can put bits of pickle on pizza to spice it up! It makes more sense on an Indian-flavored pizza (like a chicken tikka pizza or the like), but a little lime pickle on a traditional pepperoni slice is also delicious. Again, though, your pizza ends up tasting more like pickle. It's not a flavor that blends in the way red chile flakes do.
posted by Nelson at 7:59 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I want an achaar sampling bar. I really only know mango pickle (yep, jar in the fridge) but I am so condiment-focused in my eating habits. When I first encountered papadum it was like the heavens sang and angels trumpeted. Crispy savory conveyance for coriander chutney! Tamarind chutney!

Achaar I had slotted into the same culinary function as kimchi. Tons of varieties, used to accompany main dishes, ubiquitous. Some of the comments above have shared that it's not mandatory for all meals/in all households (in the way that kimchi is). Nonetheless essential accompaniments to many dishes.
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:29 AM on January 16


why did pickles reach such culinary heights in India and South East Asia, but not elsewhere, even in places like the Mediterranean with a similar climate and similar vegetation
The Mediterranean doesn't have the same vegetation as anywhere with a monsoonal climate. A few spices grow around the Mediterranean, but most of them grow in more nearly tropical places. The spice trade has made wars and fortunes for millenia because spices are irreplaceable.

One of the articles comparing regional pickle styles within India describes arid Rajasthan's much simpler pickles -- cauliflower and carrots, I think? -- very like giardiniaria in the arid Med. And cooler places have regional masterworks of the kind of fermented food you can make in their climates - saurkraut and salami are both fermented. Garum, salt-cured anchovies, pickled herring, fermented salmon heads. Hard cheese!

tl;dr peasants everywhere make great food with what they have.

I still haven't found a good explanation of oil curing, just a whole lot of warnings that if you top a brine fermentation with oil (or do it in plastic) you massively increase your risk of botulism. Well, so, Usha's Pickle Digest is on my list, maybe it will say.
posted by clew at 8:26 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Soren_lorensen you are 💯 correct. Mango achar is false. Limbu (lime/lemon) achar is the only standard achar available in stores worth eating. (Priya brand is good, or Bedekar if you can find it.)

The actual best achar, which I have never even seen a store version of but which my mother makes, is maakliber uppinkai.

Also btw it's called URGAI or AVAGAI in Telugu, not pachdi. Pachdi is a completely different dish - a chopped fresh vegetable salad that may sometimes be stirred into buttermilk.

BRB changing lunch plans to chapatis with tomato achar and yogurt 😋
posted by MiraK at 5:58 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


BRB changing lunch plans to chapatis with tomato achar and yogurt

Lemon used to be my favorite but now nothing compares to tomato pickle. Enjoy your lunch!
posted by JenMarie at 11:20 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


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