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India’s non-vegetarian pickle tradition is delicious!

I have known Shrikant Wakharkar since his days as a Catering Assistant at the Taj Bengal.

Shrikant moved to Calcutta in 1989 when the hotel opened, so even if I assume we only met a year or so later, we have been friends for 30 years now.


These days, Shrikant is General Manager of the Grand Hyatt in Kochi, a lovely hotel that I stayed at when it first opened (but before Shrikant got there), and is clearly immersing himself in Kerala culture. Last week, he sent me a box of local Malayali pickles that totally blew my mind. The pickles had all been made in the kitchens of the Grand Hyatt. According to Shrikant, the Grand Hyatt has around 10 house-made pickles available at any time.


   Most of the pickles are made to traditional Kerala methods. The Grand Hyatt’s Chef De Cuisine Prasad Moorkath explained that they sun-dry all of the spices before powdering them in a stone grinder. And for non-vegetarian pickles, the meat or fish is marinated for 24 to 36 hours with sea salt or turmeric.


   Among the pickles Shrikant sent was a (farmed) tuna pickle, one made from backwater prawns, and the best of the lot was a Syrian Christian pickle made with buffalo meat.


   It was these fish and meat pickles that got me thinking: how easy are they to get in Delhi and Mumbai? An obvious place to start was Mahabelly, easily Delhi’s best Malayali restaurant. The founders Thomas Fenn, Zachariah Jacob and the Executive Chef Jinson Varghese are Syrian Christians, so the bulk of the menu covers food from that community. (The other partner is Dr Prem Kiran.)


   Mahabelly is big on pickles. Not only can you eat them at the restaurant but they also sell them in 200 gram bottles. The bulk of the pickles on offer are vegetarian but they also make some of the pickles that Shrikant sent me: tuna, shrimp and buffalo meat.


   I was intrigued enough by these delicious Malayali pickles to wonder if meat pickles were a South Indian thing. Because so little has been written about India’s non-vegetarian pickle tradition, I crowd-sourced my info by asking for recommendations on Twitter.


   The responses were overwhelming but it soon became clear that meat pickles can be found all over India, not just the South. There is a glorious North Eastern tradition that deserves a column by itself. Then, there is a Goan tradition, centred mainly around fish pickles. And there is a flourishing North Indian tradition that seems to be centred around the Himachal-Punjab border. If you drive from Chandigarh to Shimla, you will see shops lining the road selling chicken and mutton pickles. Quality can vary but these pickles are very popular.


   I spoke to Manan Chawla of Mystic Pickle ( whose range of pickles is mind-numbing. He sells chicken and meat achaar, all made with mustard oil, without any preservatives, because as he says, “my mom being a true Punjabi and from Shimla makes delicious handcrafted pickles.” Chawla’s products belong to the Punjab-Himachal tradition.


"Say what you will about this new age where we find our food on our smartphones, but there can be no doubt that it has empowered thousands of home chefs."

   Preeti Chadha runs Pickles by PC (her Insta handle is @pickles_by_pc) and is married to a Punjabi but her non-veg pickles move away from the Shimla tradition. She surprised me with a duck pickle and an unusual keema-chilli pickle. There were no traditional recipes for these, she said, but ones she had developed herself.


   Rummy’s Kitchen (@rummyskitchen on Instagram) is a one-woman operation run by Inderpreet Nagpal, a Punjabi who now lives in Mumbai. Her vegetarian pickles are famous and made to traditional Punjabi recipes but she makes a variety of non-vegetarian pickles in the South Indian style. Her view is that meat pickles made in the North Indian way don’t last as long as South Indian pickles (probably true), so she improvises her own meat and fish pickles in a broadly South Indian style.


   Then, of course, there is a completely distinct tradition from Nepal. Gaurav Pramanik (@gauravpramanik on both Instagram and Twitter) has a dedicated following for his pickles, many of which are made according to his Nepali mother’s recipes. They use the Nepali counterpart of Sichuan pepper and can make your mouth tingle and pucker up. Some are what you would expect (buffalo meat and chicken) but there is a lot that you won’t easily find elsewhere (soya bean and shrimp, for instance). I am dying to try them given how much praise he has received on social media.


   The one non-vegetarian pickle most of us have usually come across is the Goan Prawn Balchao. It is one of those dishes that can either become a pickle or a slightly more substantial item to eat with rice or pav. Opinions on whether a balchao should be more like a pickle than a full-fledged dish vary but Crescentia Fernandes (@crescentiaskitchen on Instagram) who I get my chorizo and Goa masalas from reckons it should be a pickle. She makes it to order along with a bombil version.


   Lavina Solomon (, is another home cook who has recently taken to offering her balchaos for sale. She also makes both bombil and prawn balchao. She insists that, contrary to my fears, the bombil does not smell offensive. (I guess we will have to see!)


   The Goans are not the only community to make balchao. Lavina is from Mangalore but concedes that her balchao is Goan-influenced. On the other hand, Christina Kinny (9987869691 on WhatsApp) who is famous for her bombil pickle attributes her recipe to the East Indian community of Bassein. Christina makes a prawn pickle too but her specialty is a pickle made from Kolim, tiny baby shrimp, which is normally very hard to find.


   And then, of course, there are the Parsis. Shelley Subawalla ( of Zarin’s Secrets is well-known for her Parsi masalas but she makes a Parsi-style prawn pickle, too. Most vegetarian Parsi pickles are not significantly different from Gujarati pickles (okay, I have now offended the entire Parsi community) but the prawn pickles are their own, relying on a special vinegar from Navsari.


   And here I was thinking that meat and fish pickles were hard to get! In fact, they are easily available, thanks to the miracle of Internet ordering. We don’t need to bother to look for them in shops. And the best part is they are nearly all made by small artisanal operations or by adventurous ladies in their own home kitchens!


   Say what you will about this new age where we find our food on our smartphones, but there can be no doubt that it has empowered thousands of home chefs. And in the process, it has revived regional Indian dishes that would otherwise have been drowned by the flood of bland packaged food from multinationals.




  • Swetlana Dutta 02 Dec 2020

    Wow, loved reading this piece so much, Sir!

Posted On: 28 Nov 2020 11:45 AM
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