Where did that pickle come from?

I don’t love pickles, said nobody ever. That little ceramic or glass jar sitting on the dining table or on the kitchen shelf or even on the fridge is a dabba of memories. From dipping a finger in the jar and licking off the chatpata masala, to a spoonful accompanying every meal, the humble Indian achar has brought us so much joy in our lives. The Indian achar comes in many varieties, and depending on the ingredients is prepared at different times of the year, with differing methods, slightly different ingredients and many different flavors.

The Kannadas call it uppinakaayi, the Telugus call it Pachadi, Tamils call it Urukai, Malayalis call it Uppillituthu Marathis call it Loncha, Gujaratis call it athanu, rajastahni and people from UP/Bihar, etc. call it achaar. Call it by any name, piackle-making as a tradition in India goes back many thousands of years in the country. According to the New York Food Museum’s Pickle History Timeline cucumbers native to India, were first pickled in BCE 2030 in the Tigris Valley.

It is believed that in the 1st century BCE Roman emperor Tiberius was a huge cucumber aficionado, who insisted that cucumbers have to be a part of his meals every day. Renowned Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) notes that in Tiberius’ times, cucumbers would be grown in greenhouses or specularia to ensure an endless supply of cucumbers for the emperor. The cucumbers were also pickled. This is probably the early days of pickled cucumbers and gherkins, and the probable origin of why the Western world commonly associated ‘pickles’ with ‘pickled cucumbers and gherkins’.

Many centuries later, explorers and seafarers like Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci stocked their ships with pickles when they went out on their explorations, not just to ease the problems of food scarcity on ships but also to prevent outbreaks of scurvy among sailors due to deficiency of Vitamin C.

The word ‘Pickle’ comes from the Dutch word ‘Pekel’, meaning Brine. How about achar? Where do you think the word ‘achar’ originated from?

The origin of the word ‘achar’ is ambiguous but it is believed to have a Persian origin. Achar in Persian means ‘powdered or salted meats pickles or fruitspreserved in salt, vinegar honey or syrup’.

According to the Hobson-Jobson: The Definitive Glossary of British India, the term ‘achar’ has been mentionedin CE 1563, in the works of Garcia de Orta a Portuguese physicians, to describe a conserve of cashew with salt.

Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan traveler and writer who chronicled every day life during the reign of Mohammad Bin Tughlaq, in 14th century CE, has noted that mango and ginger pickles were common accompaniments with meals in the royal court. He notes –

The mango is about the size of a large Damask Prune, which when green and not quite ripe, of those which happen to fall, they salt and thus, preserve them just as lemon is preserved with us. In the same manner, they preserve ginger when it is green, as also pods of pepper, and this they eat with their meals.

The late food historian KT Acharya, writes in his book ‘A historical dictionary of food’ that pickles generally fall in the category foods that are cooked without fire. However, many pickles today use heating or fire to some extent during the preparation stage. Acharya further mentions in his book, citing the rich legacy and tradition of pickles in India, “a Kannada work of CE 1594 the Lingapura of Gurulinga Desikadescribes no less than fifty different kinds of pickles”! Another mention in a later era, around the 17th century is found in Sivatattvaratnakara, an encyclopedia of ancient Indian lore of Basavaraja, the King of Keladi.

In India, pickles are basically of three different types – pickles preserved in vinegar, pickles preserved in oil and pickles preserved in salt. Oil happens to be the most popular medium for pickling in India. The pickling process is one of the best ways to preserve a food item. Once preserved, the pickled product does not require any refreigeration to remain edible or prevent spoilage, making it possible to be carried long distances, irrespective of ambient temperature and conditions.

Of all the pickles in India, mango pickles are by far the most popular ones. India has hundreds of different varieties of mango pickles, with the flavors and to some extent the methods changing from region to region. It is commonly said that just about everything can be pickled – vegetables, fruits berries, gourds, leaves shoots, roots, chicken, prawns, fish, everything.

A Chennai-based lawyer – Usha R Prabhakaran has compiled over a thousand different pickle recipes in her book – Usha’s Pickle Digest.

The world also has a wide variety of pickles – there is the German sauerkraut (sour pickled cabbage), South Korea’s Kimchi, pickled herring relish in Nordic countries, etc. However, the variety of pickles in India beats the global varieties by a large margin, surely. The Gujarati/Maharashtrian sweet style chhunda, the garlic-chili laden Andhra Avakaya, the spicy aam ka achar from UP, the fresh thokus from down south the rare bottles of Parsi buffena made from whole ripe mangoes. There are also other unique pickles in India, such as the Akhuni Pickle from Nagaland, for which soya beans are carefully fermented, smoked and spiked with one of world’s spiciest chilies – Bhut Jolokia, Kerala’s meen acharor fish pickle, the spicy goan prawn balchao.

Let me close with an interesting bit of trivia. Did you known the famous Queen Cleopatra who has become a legend for her good looks, among other things, believed that her beauty came from eating ample amounts of pickles!

Tell me your pickle story in the comments.

Penny for your thoughts!