Indian Pickles, or Achaar, are those confusing, often salty, wonderful, fiery accompaniments to any Indian meal. Did you wonder what Indian pickles are and why they are so different to European pickles? There is no equivalent of Indian pickles anywhere else in the world and no Indian meal is complete without them. Pickles range in taste, texture and colour so it is easy suit every palate and every meal, and they range from hot to sour to salty or sweet. There are thousands of different pickles – spicy green chilli pickles, sweet and sour berry pickles, salty lemon and lime pickles, tender raw mango pickles, oily carrot pickles, pickles tossed with fenugreek and cardamom, yellow cauliflower pickles…
Pickles are intended to enhance a dish and add new dimensions of flavor, to revitalize flavors and wake up sluggish taste buds. They are preserved in some way – in oil, or in vinegar or other acid medium. Usually salt and spices are added, and they also act as preservatives. Salt and oil play very important roles in pickle making, not only for the taste, but as mentioned, also for the preservative qualities of both. Different oils and spices create variation amongst the pickles across India. You might taste the same pickle in North and South India, but the North will use mustard oil and the South will use sesame oil, providing very different tastes. Infinite variation is created even in pickles for the same ingredient. Whether the spices, for example, are roasted or not, or whether they are used whole, crushed or ground, will create different flavours. Pickles can be made from fruits or vegetables, and also be made sweet, spicy, salty or sour depending on the spices and flavorings used.
In most Indian households, it is a common sight to find big glass jars filled with freshly made pickles sitting on a sunny window sill. It is a method of developing the flavours and letting them mature. More traditional still, they are made in large ceramic pots that are sealed with wet clay and stored until needed. The opening of the pot is quite a ritual. Most pickles will keep for some months, and many will keep for years.
Traditionally, farmers and laborers going out to work would pack a lunch of a few rotis or rice with some achaar, and perhaps a raw onion. A cheap meal indeed, and the spicy, tangy achaar makes up for the blandness of the rice or roti.
The process of making pickles is simple, but traditional pickles take some effortless time as the ingredients sun-dry (or low temp oven dry outside of sunny, hot climates), then soak in spices and oils, and then mature using the heat of the sun as a natural way to develop the flavours. The results are the tangy, extraordinary pickles of India. There are also quicker versions, but traditional households swear by the taste and flavour of the sun dried ingredients. Homemade pickles are prepared in the summer when the fruits and vegetables are readily available, and are matured by exposing to sunlight for up to two weeks. The pickle is kept covered with muslin while it is maturing. The high concentrations of salt, oil, and spices act as preservatives.
Over the hot summer months, it is common to find families gathered on roof tops, patios or terraces, sitting in a circle preparing the ingredients for pickling. Each family has its own recipes passed down the generations, and pickle making is quite an anticipated event.
Common vegetables in South India for pickles include amla (gooseberry), unripe mango, lime, lemon, citron, garlic, ginger, chillies, tomatoes, onions, gongura, combinations of these, and less commonly unripe black pepper (while it is still green on the vine), coriander, brinjal (eggplant), bitter gourd and any other vegetable in plentiful harvest. Commonly used spices include mustard, methi (fenugreek), chilli powder, salt, asafoetida and turmeric.
Pickles are chosen carefully to compliment the other dishes in a meal. The pickle should balance the meal — serve a sweet pickle with a spicy dish, for example. Or serve a tangy or hot pickle with a more mild dish.
- A ginger pickle goes well with a spicy curry.
- Serve sour pickle with papadum for a snack or before a meal.
- A lime pickle or a spicy brinjal (eggplant) pickle served with poppadoms or naan makes a great start to a meal.
- Mix a pickle into a salad dressing to add zing.
- Mix any pickle with fresh vegetables to make a quick salad.
- Mix with yoghurt or sour cream to make a dip for vegetables or chips.
- Mix with mayonnaise for a dressing or dip.
- Mix with rice and a little ghee for a snack or light lunch.
Pickles can still be successfully made using low temperature ovens or dehydrators for drying.
Pickles should be kept in the fridge after opening.