The art of pickle-making has been an age-old tradition in most Indian homes. Summertime is generally booked for making flavoursome pickles. It is a season of mangoes, lime, chillies and a plethora of vegetables and fruits that are generously rubbed with spices and locked in huge jars with oil, vinegar, sugar or salt. Elderly ladies watch it with hawk’s eye so that nobody dips in a dirty finger or a wet spoon.
The recipes are usually a closely-guarded secret that is passed on from one generation to another with no written record. Grandmas had their way of making mouth-watering pickles and adding chutzpa to each jar of pickles. They could transform anything into delicious fare. The frenzy around the whole pickling process in every home is worth reminiscing about.
Pickling is a unique way of preserving fruits, vegetables, herbs, poultry and meat. Various ingredients are added and methods are used to make a long-lasting pickle. Let’s take a short trip through the lane of ingredients that are used for fermentation.
It is a process of adding a strong mixture of water and salt. Sometimes sugar is also added. Brining is a very common way to preserve and pickle in the Western world. People add brine to cucumbers, radishes, dill and carrots. The vegetables are immersed in brine to extract the juices and sugars from them. This process takes about 15 days. One can see a change in colour after 15-20 days. For example, a dark green cucumber starts turning light green and later yellow because of the salt and water solution. The fruit, vegetable, poultry or meat that has to be fermented is plunged and at least an inch of brine is above the pickling ingredient. This ensures that every inch of the ingredient is immersed well and safe to store for a long time. In brine, salt is the main ingredient that ferments the pickle. A generous amount of salt is a necessity. Brining helps in fermenting the pickle faster. It is always advisable to wash off the ingredient before using or one might end up eating a super salty pickle. Even taking out the pickle from the jar needs a lot of care. Unclean hands or dirty spoons can easily contaminate any pickle with this super simple pickling agent.
Adding oil to any pickle reduces the chances of moisture entering the pickle jar. Oil is always heated till it smokes and is left to cool before adding into the pickle. Most North Indians love the earthy flavour of mustard oil. And pickles down south are made with equally aromatic and woody-flavoured sesame oil. The two oils are generally used for a long-lasting pickle. People also use refined oil to make instant ones. Salt in the pickle dehydrates the pickling ingredient and oil ensures a luscious coat over the ingredient. Thus, this makes it a double-layered protection. Apart from saving the pickle from moisture, oil ensures that no microorganisms from the air or atmosphere spoil it. A well-covered pickle with a thick layer of oil would last a year long. The most common mango pickle is a perfect example.
Vinegar contains acetic acid. This prevents the growth of any fungus or bacteria. If one wants a pickle to last longer one should use vinegar with an acidity level of 5% or more. The tart and sharp flavour of vinegar is excellent for pickling. White vinegar is generally used as the flavours are clean and the discolouration of the pickled ingredient does not take place. One can also use malt vinegar and apple cider vinegar. But since they are mild, they might not get the pH level of the pickling ingredient to the required level. This makes the pickles ready to use immediately or can be stored for a short duration. You can make chilli or ginger pickle with loads of vinegar in it.
Chilli Paste and sour ingredients:
Most Indian pickles demand a lot of spices. India has a hot and humid climate. Adding spices like chilli paste, salt, tamarind and others ensures a long-lasting pickle. Chilli paste, apart from adding taste to the fruit or vegetable, removes bacteria that might promote easy spoilage. Chillies also contain natural bacteria that aid the fermentation of pickles. The addition of sea salt, rather than iodised salt, ensures a long preservation time of the pickle. Sea salt does not remove colour from fruits or vegetables but maintains the natural colours. Tamarind is also used to conserve pickles. It provides an acidic environment for the pickle to store well. The use of tart berries like juniper or sour greens like gongura is another way to save it from getting contaminated. Tomato and gongura pickles are made with chillies and a souring agent.
A good mix of spices is added for flavour and aroma. But each spice in the mix has properties to dehydrate and preserve the pickles. Spices like cinnamon, cumin, cardamom and bay leaves were used to preserve mummies in Egypt too. The properties are known for ages and are used in pickle making too. Most Indian pickles use these spices while pickling. A lime pickle or a mango pickle is a perfect example of the use of spices.
Filtered water with salt or acids like vinegar or lime is good for fermentation. This works well in places that have high humidity in the air. Vegetables like carrots and turnips can be fermented with this base.
Pickling meat is a different ball game altogether. Before pickling, meat requires to be cured. Curing can be done with sodium nitrate, vinegar, lemon juice, citric acid, salt or sugar. Smoking is another common method to pickle meats. Most northeastern states follow the smoking method. Smoking dehydrates the meat and one can store the pickle for a longer duration. Pickling of pork, beef, chicken and mutton is usually done in this manner.
A pickle can add piquancy to every plate of food. But at the same time, one can conveniently add that it is an acquired taste. A pickle loved by some might not be even palatable to others. Their combinations vary from place to place and from person to person. Combinations like spicy and sour mango and jackfruit pickle or curry leaves pickles might seem mind-boggling to some and a delectable concoction to others. Common pickles like the mango pickle are welcomed in all forms – sweet and spicy, shredded and above all the cut mango pickle.