I was surprised during my first trip to India when the pickles accompanying my carrots with pulao, paneer ki sabzi and papadam looked and tasted nothing like the pickles I grew up canning with my grandmother in Minnesota at the end of every growing season. These Indian pickles were made from mangoes slicked in nutty mustard oil, and they set my mouth on fire. My heat-seeking palate was in love with them the moment the first bead of sweat appeared on my forehead, and I’ve been on a mission ever since to try every variety I can get my hands on.
Indian pickles have been in fashion since the cucumber was first introduced to the nation from Iraq in 2030 B.C.E., and the country has had a love affair with them ever since. Every region of India has countless pickle recipes, including wide-ranging ingredients as mangoes, cauliflower, jackfruit, carrot, radish, pumpkin, lotus, ginger, apples, red or green chilies, and lime.
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Unlike the vinegar brines most commonly used for pickling in the United States and Europe, Indian pickles are doused in mustard oil in northern India and sesame oil in the southern states to destroy harmful bacteria and ensure long-term preservation. Seasoning options are even more plentiful than the ingredients they are flavoring and include a seemingly endless list of herbs and spices, including fenugreek, turmeric, mustard, cardamom, chili powder, cumin, cloves and cinnamon. The spices are combined with a generous amount of rock salt to ensure proper preservation.
Indian pickles a summer project
In India, fruits and vegetables used for pickles are harvested in the sweltering summer months, when the bounty is at its peak. Many of the ingredients, such as mango and lime, are chopped and then sun-dried before being combined with the oil and seasonings and sealed in either airtight plastic, glass or porcelain containers for use throughout the cooler fall and winter months. Their tangy heat is the perfect counterpoint to sweet chutneys, cooling raita and rice that is ubiquitous at nearly every meal. Indian pickles add dimension to even the most humble ingredients, brightening them with their acidic alchemy of complex spices and plucky heat.
Indians become nostalgic about the days when pickle preparation was a beloved ritual practiced by nearly every family throughout the country. It was a time for far-flung relatives to join together to harvest, blend spices and catch up with each other as they assembled the pickle jars that would receive prominent placement in virtually every kitchen throughout India. The days when every extended family jealously guarded their sacred pickle recipes for the next generation are long gone for the majority of busy Indians, but the pickle will never disappear from their thalis. And even though pickles are typically purchased in plastic jars at the neighborhood market these days, their unique flavor will always earn them a place at the millions of tables throughout the country that most Indians would agree would not be complete without the presence of the pickle.
Madhuri Patwal’s Mango Pickle Recipe
This is a recipe that was handed down to New Delhi resident Madhuri Patwal from her mother, who taught her daughter the family’s recipe when she was a child growing up in the village of Srinagar in the region of Uttaranchal.
10 unripe mangoes
½ cup rock salt or sea salt
½ cup turmeric
½ cup red chili
½ cup fenugreek
½ cup fennel
1. Chop the mangoes with a cleaver or sharp, blunt knife, chopping right through the seed and leaving it attached to the flesh.
2. Dry the pieces in direct sunlight for approximately four to five days, or until the segments are dehydrated.
3. Place the mangoes in a large bowl.
4. Combine them with ½ cup each rock salt (or sea salt), turmeric, red chili, fenugreek and fennel.
5. Blend until the segments are well coated.
6. Let sit for one hour.
7. Transfer to a large jar with an airtight lid and add enough mustard oil to cover completely.
8. Seal tightly.
9. Let sit in a cool, dark corner for at least two months before using. The pickles will keep indefinitely as long as they remain submerged in the oil.
Top photo: Mango pickles. Credit: Sandeep Patwal