Indians love pickles. Vegetarian households invariably serve at least one pickled dish or relish at every meal. And even when there is meat on the table, there is usually also a pickle or two, particularly at special occasions.
Part of the reason is practical: Pickling is a way to preserve foods without refrigeration in a blistering climate. But there’s also another reason: Indians are greedy for flavor. It’s not just that we love the taste of food--we live for it. We’re always hungry for more layers and more contrasting tastes. And no food can satisfy that hunger as well as a variety of pickles.
After about 10 years of relying on store-bought pickles, India is experiencing something of a pickle-making revival. Cooks there are learning once again to appreciate this cornerstone of the cuisine, and for the American cook, the revelation will only be more profound.
Indian pickles can add complexity to any kind of meal. They can be served as appetizers, with crackers and cheese. They make an intriguing relish with steak. They can be chopped into egg salad, or served alongside scrambled eggs. A bit of their oil enlivens mashed potatoes, or mixed with mayonnaise, makes a wonderful sauce for steamed fish. Think of Indian pickles like a salsa or a chutney--two other exotic condiments that are now staples of the American pantry.
Indians will pickle almost anything--vegetables, fruits, even meats. And many of the ingredients are the same as American pickles: salt, vinegar, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves and ginger. But Indian pickles offer some of the most diverse and exotic tastes and textures imaginable.
A lot of our pickles are fiery hot, but they’re also sour, pungent, fragrant, sweet-and-sour and tart. They can be crisp or chewy or silky-textured. Sometimes the flavors are fresh, the taste of each spice distinct. Or, if the pickle has been aged, the flavors will marry and intensify, the textures melt and soften.
Some pickles are made to be eaten in large quantities, the way you’d eat a vegetable side dish, but most pickles are too strongly flavored for that. They’re eaten in minuscule amounts, just enough to enliven the taste of a dish. (One of the great advantages of pickles, in fact, is that they are guaranteed to punch up the taste of the blandest foods.)
In India, pickles are more than a food. In the summertime, a town’s social life centers on pickle-making. Pickles are the sustenance for travelers, and a symbol of home. They are eaten as a cure for ailments such as stomach aches. They are an important part of the Ayurvedic tradition. There are even literary odes to pickles.
As you would guess, everyone has strong feelings about them. But if you ask an Indian where the best pickles are made, he will probably name three sources: the Marwari and Baniya trading communities in northern India, the state of Gujarat in western India and the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India.
The Marwari and Baniya communities are completely vegetarian and subsist on pickles and bread. The people of these communities make pickles every day, and their meals are made up of several different types. Pickles that are spiced with fenugreek and fennel and pickled in mustard oil are likely to be from northern India, as are pickled cauliflower, carrots, turnips and radishes, the winter vegetables that are grown on the northern plains.
The very best pickles of that Gujarat region are said to be from the city of Surat. There is a saying in that area: “Surat nu jaman, Kashi nu maran,” which translates as, “One should go to Surat to enjoy a meal and then to Kashi [one of the holiest cities in India] to find peace and die.” These pickles are typically made with sesame and peanut oils.
In Andhra Pradesh, there is an old saying that a good kitchen should have no fewer than 50 different pickles. South Indian pickles use a lot of chiles, both whole and powdered, as well as fenugreek seeds and curry leaves. You’ll find tropical berries and herbs pickled in the south, in peanut, sesame and sometimes coconut oils. Southern pickles tend to be hotter than those made in other parts of India.
Growing up in New Dehli and the Northern Plains, I remember pickling season as an incredibly exciting time, something akin to Christmas for American kids. I couldn’t wait to taste the current year’s batch of pickles. For weeks every summer, I would run home after school every day to find out what had happened to the pickles while I was gone--if only to watch our family chef, Panditji, shake and rotate the jars out on the veranda and try to cajole him into opening one early for a taste.
Pickles represent a ritual world of food and community in India. Pickling is an ancient art and a part of Hindu spiritual practice. According to the laws of Hindu religion, pickling--"cooking” foods with sun and air--is one of the three acceptable ways to make raw foods palatable. The rituals of pickle-making define a certain period of the summer when entire households are given over to the task in India. Play, food, music and storytelling combine to give the season a celebratory mood.
Traditionally, in small towns, the women join together, spending days outside in the shade of tamarind trees cutting, preparing and drying the fruits and vegetables. The kids play above in the dense greenery of the trees, eating the green fruit of the tamarind and tossing the seeds onto the ground below. (Stomach aches and tiny tamarind seedlings are evidence of their gluttony.)
Below, the women lay the fruit out on terraces on sheets of muslin for several days to dry, or “ripen,” in the summer sun and concentrate their flavors. The produce is brought inside every night to protect against dew and laid out again in the morning. Then the pickles are put up in big ceramic jars about 20 inches tall and set out to ripen in the sun for several more days.
Even in urban centers in India today, the time of pickling still invites ritual community and celebration. Women call each other on the phone to organize the making of the pickles or to ask for the gift of a jar of a favorite kind. Life slows a bit, personal connections are made and ritual, thousands of years old, is repeated.
Suvir Saran is a cooking teacher and caterer in New York who specializes in Indian cuisine. Stephanie Lyness is a food writer.