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The greatness of Indian pickles

As a small boy, I was always confused by the term pickle.

It meant one thing at home and quite another thing abroad. If you ordered a hot dog in say, New York, they would say that it came with French fries and pickles. I would get very excited and look for the achaar when the dish was served.

 

Except that there wouldn’t be any. The hot dog would come with fries as promised. But instead of the achaar I expected there would be a gherkin or some strange vegetable that tasted of vinegar. I would have to look for ketchup or mustard to add some flavour to the hot dog.

 

   The disappointments kept mounting. Pickled eggs sounded great. But it just meant boiled eggs in vinegar. Pickled onions did not refer to the delicious onion pickle we had at home. It meant “little onions in the same old vinegar.”

 

   Even when the noun ‘pickle’ was used, it did not refer to our achaar. Most English pubs would serve a dish called the Ploughman’s Lunch. This was a great name because it evoked the kind of food a hungry farmer might enjoy halfway through the day. In fact, the dish consisted of a hunk of industrial bread and a bit of nasty processed cheese. All this came with a puddle of Branston pickle.

 

   But Branston was not what we would call a pickle. It was a sweetish vegetable chutney with no spice that I could recognise.

 

   Of course Branston had nothing to do with farmers or ploughmen and as a famous 1983 film (The Ploughman’s Lunch with Jonathan Pryce) made clear, the Ploughman’s Lunch itself was a total con. It had damn all to do with farmers and was invented by the British advertising industry to sell more (largely disgusting) processed cheese. When I saw the film, I thought to myself, “The Ploughman’s Lunch has as little to do with ploughs as Branston has to do with real pickle.”

 

   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.

 

   But while our achaars are very different from Western pickles, they do have something in common with the sauces and relishes of East Asia. Indonesia has over a hundred sambals. In Thailand, there are so many fresh sauces and dips that it does not matter whether the dish is good or bad. You just mix a fresh sauce with rice and you have everything you need for a tasty meal.

 

   The last time I was in Bangkok, a chef-friend took me to a branch of Greyhound, Thailand’s leading café chain. (There is a very nice Greyhound in London as well now.) He ordered a salmon appetiser, which was made with flabby, farmed salmon. “Never mind the quality of the salmon”, my friend said. “Just enjoy the sauce it comes with. That’s the thing about the Thais. They can take very ordinary ingredients and make them taste delicious because of their sauces.”

 

  He was right, of course. But even as he talked about the Thais, I thought back to Indian food. Which of us has not asked for pickle when the food is not very good? We know that a little pickle will spice up any meal. And it can make simple food taste glorious.

 

   "I can’t think of too many other cuisines that rely as much on fruit and vegetables, mixed with spices and preserved in oil."

  Perhaps it is because I am a Gujarati but I rarely find any Indian meal complete without pickle. (And I can’t eat rice without papad – but that is another story.) But I find that other communities also share my love for pickle. Malayalis will nearly always ask for pickle and papadam with their food – even though they invented one of the world’s great cuisines and hardly need to reach out for extra flavour.

 

   All over the South, the combination of dahi and pickle (which I used to think of as a peculiarly Gujarati thing till I asked around), is admired and respected. Gujaratis will add a little pickle to dahi and dip their theplas or their masala puris into it. That’s all we need to create a great breakfast. Other communities may be harder to please than Gujaratis but the power of pickle is acknowledged all over India.

 

 Why do we have so many pickles? Well, I think most civilisations that understand herbs and spices create accompaniments to meals that make use of those flavours. That is why the Thais have so many dipping sauces. The Spanish have such sauces as Romesco. The French will use fresh tarragon to create a Béarnaise sauce. (The Chinese rarely have any condiments on the table, by the way. Make what you will of that. Chilli-garlic sauce, beloved of all Indian Chinese restaurants was invented – in this form – on Delhi’s Man Singh Road, by chefs who understood the Indian attachment to pickles.)

 

   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.

 

   But did we invent our pickles as a way of preserving fruit and vegetables? That is certainly why the West invented its salty and vinegary pickles. I am not sure that’s true of India. Did one of our ancestors look at a mango and say, “let me preserve this fruit by turning it into an achaar”?

 

   If he had, then a mango pickle would taste more of the mango and less of the spices that go into it. You could argue that a murabba was a way of preserving the sweet taste of the mango (in the way that fruit jams perform this function in the West) but it is hard to make the same claim for an achaar.

 

   On the other hand, some North Indian pickles do rely on seasonal vegetables (shalgam, for instance). So you can’t rule that out entirely as an explanation either.

 

   But my sense is that our ancestors looked at achaars rather as they looked at a sabzi – as one more way of getting the most out of a vegetable. That it lasted longer was a bonus; not the primary motive.

 

 Longevity is one way in which our achaars differ from chutneys. I have been trying to narrow down the differences between the two and chutneys seem to always be fresher, last for less time and are usually pulverised to an even, semi-liquid, consistency, unlike pickles. Some vegetables lend themselves to both chutneys and pickles: garlic, for instance, or onion. But some fruits and vegetables can only become chutneys: all leaves (dhania, pudina, etc.) are chutney staples. And though I suppose that it is possible to make a coconut pickle (in theory, at least) I have only ever come across coconut chutneys.

 

 The more I think about Indian pickles, the more I am in awe of their greatness. I wrote here, a few years ago, that dal is the great Indian dish, the one thing you will find nearly everywhere in India. That’s true enough. But, I shouldn’t have stopped there.

 

   I should have mentioned pickles and chutneys. No matter where you go in India, you will always find a distinctive local pickle or a special chutney.

 

   And yet, I reckon we don’t respect our pickles enough. Millions of words have been devoted to biryani and to the idli.

 

   But how much have you read about achaar?

 

   It is the great Indian dish. And it gets no respect. Over the next few months, I’ll do my bit to set that right on these pages.

 

 

 

Posted On: 14 Dec 2019 01:25 PM
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