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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

PICKLES – THE ADORNMENT OF A COMPLETE INDIAN MEAL

PICKLES – THE ADORNMENT OF A COMPLETE INDIAN MEAL

Pickles are the life of every Indian meal. Indians are a breed who can’t live without their pickles, so wherever in the world they are traveling to, the pickle jar is always part of their luggage. If the food is not palatable, a good pickle served as an accompaniment will save you from the pangs of hunger. Just plain rice and curd can be had with a good pickle to accompany it. Any dish whether it be a meal or a snack gets enhanced with a good pickle accompaniment.

HISTORY OF PICKLES

The history of pickles is believed to be over 4,000 years old. In 2030 B.C., cucumbers, native to India were brought to the Tigris Valley. There, they were first preserved and eaten as pickles. Pickles are mentioned in the Bible and history records their usage over 3,000 years ago in Western Asia, ancient Egypt and Greece. In 850 B.C., Aristotle praised the healing effects of cured cucumbers.

Cleopatra attributed her beauty to pickles. Pliny's writings mention spiced and preserved cucumbers; in other words, pickles. The enjoyment of pickles spread far and wide through Europe. In the 13th Century, pickles were served as a main dish at the famous feast of King John. In the 16th Century, Dutch fine food fanciers cultivated pickles as one of their prized delicacies. Napoleon valued pickles as a health asset for his army. A fondness for pickles has always been a national characteristic of the American people.

In India as early as the Vedic times, salt, vinegar, jaggery, honey, asafoetida and tamarind were used for preserving and lending taste to foods as the accent was always on the preservation of good health through a well adjusted diet. In the medical treatises of Susruta and Charaka the use of these spices and condiments are widely referred.

THE ART OF PICKLING

Pickles are those tasty morsels of vegetable/fruit drenched in oil and suffused with spices. Pickling to put it simply, is nothing more than preserving fruits, vegetables, meat or fish in salt alone with or without the addition of oil and spices. Spices are the aromatic leaves, buds, fruits, seeds or barks of plants. Pickles, contrary to what people imagine, are not either difficult to prepare or preserve. It is only that one has to observe certain canons regarding cleanliness as for example the use of clean, dry and quality fruits and vegetables, sterile jars and dry ladles, which if disregarded makes the pickle-venture a disaster, with the formation of mold and fungus. Also one has to liberally use salt, oil and chilly powder, if one is averse to the use of preservatives.

The Art of pickling has raised culinary art to such a high level of sophistication that it has acquired an exotic, almost legendary reputation. One aspect of pickling is the great variety and range it offers for all seasons and occasions. This is made possible because of the tremendous variety of fruits and vegetables to choose from, starting from the humble potato to the heavenly lemon, the mild pear to the strong smelling garlic, the bitter gourd to the sweet beet.

PICKLE MAKING IN INDIA

Pickle-making is thoroughly exciting and a continuous process of discovery. One is amazed at the astonishing range of pickles available in India. While there are as many varieties of pickles as there are dialects in this country, there is a certain uniformity in diversity. Most of all Indian pickles are spicy - the quantum and nature of spices varying from region to region.

The Indian subcontinent is a veritable spice shell. The available spices span a spell binding range from aniseeds, asafoetida, cumin seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves to fenugreek seeds, flower essence, mace, mango powder and mustard seeds. No less impressive is her range of seasonal fruits and vegetables.

THE NORTH - SOUTH DIVIDE

The taste of pickles made in the South of India differ from the taste of the pickles made in the North of India. I think, Climatic conditions also change the usage of certain spices in the respective regions. Although the same or different vegetables may be pickled, the spices, oils, souring/sweetening agents and treatment may be dissimilar in different parts of the country.

The same mango pickle when prepared in the South tastes different from the one prepared in the North - the difference is the oil base - the south predominantly uses gingelly oil (sesame oil) whereas in the north the preferred oil is mustard oil. Strange as it may seem, spices like cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper although grown in South India are more generously used in the northern parts of the country, attributed perhaps to the Moghul influence.

In the south, chilly powder, turmeric powder, mustard seeds, asafoetida, jaggery are the favoured spices. Although in the north, chilly powder is used, sweet spices like cardamom, cloves, aniseeds etc. are additionally used. Sugar takes the place of jaggery most of the time.

The souring agents used in the south, apart from the pickled vegetable itself, are tamarind or curd or lime juice or a combination of them, as opposed to vinegar in the north.

The real secret of spicing and seasoning pickles is not only which spices you use but also how you use them, whether raw or roasted, whole or ground etc. Remember however, that whole spices retain flavor longer than ground spices.

Although the weights of the ingredients are mentioned, in India most pickle-makers do not use any system of weighing or measuring pickling ingredients. They rely solely upon what they have learned by trial and error, by what they have been taught or by what is passed down from generation to generation. There are no hard and fast rules for the preparation of any particular recipe, because the ingredients remain the same, only the quantities vary. Common sense and your instincts are all you need. In time you will develop a better understanding of the relationship between aromas, flavors and textures. Practice makes the art of pickling perfect.

As interesting and tasty as pickles may be, one should be careful not to overdo or underplay any particular spice. Equally difficult is harmonizing the various flavors to compliment the basic ingredient without swamping it. Though spices enhance the taste, they will not disguise ingredients that taste bad and hence quality fruits and vegetables should be pickled and preserved. It would be better to have less of a fine ingredient than a large quantity of an inferior one.

Pickle making can get a little tricky. Much of the ingredients which go into the making of a pickle, as for instance the chillies that go into the chilly powder, cannot be accurately stated, as the pungency of the chilly powder depends on whether it is made from Andhra red chillies or ordinary red chillies or Kashmiri red chillies. The pickle in general turns out all right but to make a great pickle one requires dedication and commitment - it has to be a passion as with all art forms.

Pickles cover a broad range from fermented pickles, fresh pack pickles, fruit pickles and relishes, which are primarily vinegar based. The vinegar used should be atleast of five per cent acidity so that the vegetables/fruits are properly acidified. White vinegar is preferred where light coloured fruits or vegetables are used. The use of canning salt or pickling salt is advised as iodised salt darkens the pickle.

Pickles taste equally good when prepared in tamarind sauce, lime juice or curd. Use of mango powder or pomegranate seeds imparts an unforgettable flavour. It is the pickle that adds to the allure of tongue-tickling dishes, creating a complete, memorable meal. Most pickles keep for a few months, some like avakkai (Andhra mango pickle) keep for years.

Ginger, asafoetida, turmeric are all considered digestives. They are pickled with beans or split peas to fight off their hard-to-digest stubbornness. Mint does the same thing. It also kills germs. Asafoetida is considered a nerve tonic. Cumin and green cardamom are cooling, clove and cinnamon are warming, ginger is good for colds, while raw garlic is good for circulatory ailments and jangled nerves. Red chillies in small doses have an antiseptic effect. Black pepper livens the appetite and also acts as a tonic for new mothers. Aren't we lucky to have such an extraordinary range of spices and aromatic herbs?

It is evident therefore that no meal is complete without a pickle. There are numerous varieties to choose from -

· The Instant (quick-serve) pickles which are instant no-nonsense recipes turning out to be time-saving, tongue-tickling temptations in a jiffy - mango ginger slices pickled in lime juice, the instant maanga curry of the south etc.

· The Oil-free pickles which open up a staggering variety of fabulous low calorie but tasty delicacies for the health conscious - like pickled cucumbers, vegetable pieces pickled with green chillies

· The Diet pickles, full of the goodness of vitamin and mineral-rich fruits and vegetables, skillfully combined - bittergourd pickled with ginger in lime juice and last but not the least is

· The Anti-waste pickles - unforgettable, tasty, tangy, nutritious morsels combining skins, peels, rinds and seeds with aromatic spices - the orange peel pickle.

The preparation of Indian pickles remains a mystery to most. The purpose of this article is to demystify it. Before embarking upon pickling it will be useful to understand and learn to select vegetables and fruits of good quality, to clean, cut and cook them without much loss of nutrients. It is worth noting that vegetables are in their prime in the season. Buying them out of the season, is not only uneconomical but also less tasteful.

My Blog has a Pickles section which has some of the most tongue-tickling Pickle recipes from all over India.

2 comments:

momsnetwork said...

Homemade pickle is the best!! yummmmmmm, mouthwatering!!!!
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Akula H said...

Thank you Sukanaya for such a lovely article. Do you live in India? If so how do you manage to get pickling salt or canning salt? I will be grateful to you if you can let me know a brand that is available in India.

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