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What is a pickle doing on my plate?

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

I am not much of a pickle eater. But even I cannot discount that an accompaniment or a side can add a zing to any meal. Be it a salad, dressing, chutney, papad or a pickle. A pickle adds that wonderful touch of drama and complexity to an otherwise boring or plain meal. It is a fusion of many flavours from sour and sweet, to tangy and spicy. Pickle is to an Indian meal what soy and vinegar are to Asian cuisine. It has the power to transform a meal from drab to fab!

For those who have witnessed it up close; our childhood memories are incomplete without the visual of Grandma's big white ceramic jars filled to the brim with mouthwatering pickles, sitting it out in the hot sun. Just like family businesses, pickle recipes were handed down from generation to generation.

But in today’s fast paced lives where families are nuclear, this age-old Indian tradition of handing down secret recipes is on the ebb. Sure, some of us would love to go back to simpler times where summers meant courtyards filled with cackling women exchanging gossip over heaps of raw fruits and vegetables being cut and children sneaking a spiced slice on the sly but we have to admit that times are a changing and the process of pickling is seen by many as too time-consuming.

Pickle Pickle & More Pickle

In India, we pickle almost everything edible, vegetables, fruits, flowers, roots, shoots, stems, meat and even seafood. India is a tropical country with hot weather. Without any refrigerators till about a hundred years ago, people had to look at ways of extending the shelf life of seasonal fruits and vegetables. The only way to do that was to look at preserving them in combination with salt, oil, spices and jaggery. Which is why pickles are a favourite choice for long distance journeys. Pack them along with some theplas or parathas and the heady aroma and exotic taste is sure to drift you off into a contented snooze.

Traditionally pickles were said to be high in ‘good’ bacteria—fashionably called ‘pro-biotics’ today. That they were home-made and had no preservatives was a given. But in the current times, pickle making is a business much like any other. While there is much debate about whether pickles are unhealthy and lack nutritive value, I'd argue that this is the case for only commercially-made, preservative-heavy pickles.

According to me, making a pickle is the epitome of culinary strength. The discipline that it requires, right from maintaining cleanliness and hygiene, to the correct amount of sunlight needed to become ready to eat is phenomenal. Making good pickles is a traditional art that embodies the science of preserving food naturally. Hence the need to look out for pickles that are made and sold much like the old days i.e. family recipes of pure food handed down from generation to generation.

The Quest for the Best Pickle

I chanced upon Chataka Tales, an online pickle store, which is not a humongous, impersonal, commercial pickle factory but a home-style set-up that makes hand-made, sun-dried pickles with organic fruits and vegetables in organic ingredients.

That is when I discovered the ‘Wild Olive Pickle’. I love olives and was pleasantly surprised to know that they are not exclusively Mediterranean. Wild Olive / Indian olive is a native food in West Bengal and Assam. This evergreen shrub is called Jalpai. So I venture out to buy pickles.

Upon opening the jar, I discovered that the Indian olive packs in all the tanginess and goodness of its western counterpart but is less bitter in taste and more luscious.

To me the pickle tasted more indigenous (for a lack of a better term) than olives I wash and eat out of brine or vinegar. Since it has no preservatives or chemicals, I could easily eat it with my daily meals like chapati, rice, dal, pulav or parathas. To me this was a tiny but potent way to relish new fruits and vegetables. It helped that it was delivered to my doorstep J

What’s your pickle story?

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