Bite into the flesh of a pale white slice of a cucumber preserved over a set amount of time in brine (which is a mix of salt and water in high amounts), the dash of sourness and saltiness gives your senses a quick zing and before you know it, you’re reaching out for more. This how the pickle tastes in the Western parts of the world, but it’s not the same when you come to South Asia.
Take any house in India and you would find a white ceramic jar with a brown stripe on its neck, sitting in the corner of a shelf. Sealed tightly shut, the cloth between the jar and the lid is the sole authority of its lifespan, and lying inside it is a vegetable or meat, preserved in brine, oil, vinegar or bathed in spices. And over there… pickle is called achaar.
But before these variants took its form all over the world, where was it first made? And how does it continue to grow? Is there an expiry date? Read on to find out more…
Rumour has it
Did you know? Famed Egyptian monarch, Queen Cleopatra’s beauty has been talked about for ages. But, rumour has it that she owed a great deal of it to a jar of pickle. Not only did she use it to keep herself healthy and beautiful, but she also shared it with Julius Caesar, who then shared it with his troops to keep them strong ahead of war.
If we were to go back in time to look at the origins of this famed condiment, one would end up in a pickle (pun intended). According to history.com, it’s been over 4,000 years since this juicy, sour and tasty creation wound its way onto every dinner table: “When ancient Mesopotamians began soaking cucumbers in acidic brine, as a way to preserve them… they have been a staple in cultures around the globe, renowned for their heartiness, health benefits and delicious taste.”
Ever since then, this method of preservation was adapted by seafarers while they went on voyages, and was also used by several locals as a source of food during the winter.
When we take a look at the etymology, the word pickle is actually Dutch for pekel, as stated by the not-for-profit broadcast organisation’s site pbs.com, which means brine. However, there’s a different word for it in different regions, and even different techniques to making it. Levants call it mukhalal, Koreans call it kimchi, Iranians call it torshi and India… well achaar, of course.
But before that, here’s the difference between pickling and fermenting.
Pickling vs Fermenting
Two very different concepts, although involving the same ingredient. Pickling is the process of soaking and cooking the vegetable or fruit into an acidic solution like vinegar, whereas fermenting involves immersing the vegetable or fruit into a salt and water solution, where it is left to rest for a long period of time.
The former is a quick way to change the taste and texture of the vegetable or fruit and involves heat, although the latter requires more time and no heat.
Food by Gulf News got in touch with Reece Dunne, head of culinary at Pickl. Burger in Dubai, who explains: “Pickling vegetables retain the majority of the vitamins and minerals which are found in the vegetable's raw form. Pickled vegetables can – if done correctly – last up to 6 months. The vinegar used to create that acidic environment which the vegetable find themselves in when pickling is around 25 times more acidic (the pH scale is logarithmic – meaning a pH of 3 is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 4) than the pH level in which pathogens can grow.”
All you need is a jar
Making pickle is more of a science than just a cooking process. If you’re someone who’s looking to try it out first-hand at home, all you need is a sturdy jar and a few good microbes. Weird as it sounds, it is quite true. The process of making a pickle only has one ingredient, and that’s time. And like all things, there’s always a good guy and a bad guy. We’re talking about microbes, though.
Good microbes survive best without oxygen, which is why vegetables and fruits are usually found immersed in airtight, sterilised jars. This is done so that the microbes can consume the sugar present in the ingredient used, by converting these carbohydrates into acids, thereby setting up the ideal environment for fermentation.
Not only do they wear their suits of armour by protecting the pickle from rotting, but they also produce lactic acid and other components to strengthen the flavour of the pickle. Plus, it makes for a great pro-biotic as well.
Pickle vs Achaar
There was a time when a few of us who stayed in hostel, found our gang growing every six months by one or two foreign exchange students from USA. And when that happens, there would always be one of us asking the canteen server: “Anna, pickle.”
When we finally got this ‘pickle’, it would come with expressions of disbelief, gasps and tears from those having a low tolerance to spice. We’re talking about the foreign students here. The thing about such an experience for my foreign friends, was that pickle had a very different meaning altogether in America, and what they saw resembled an extremely hot sauce.
In India, achaar is so deeply loved that it is a must-have at every dining table. Mixed with spices and then stored for longer periods of time, achaar continues to take its form in a variety of fruits, vegetables, seafood and even meat.
However outside India, the piquancy of the pickle is measured from its preservation in vinegar before being stored under oil and then refrigerated. According to researcher Lynda Brown’s ‘The Preserving Book’ the best ingredients for preserving in oil are Mediterranean vegetables. “These [vegetables] are particularly well suited to this method of preservation, which brings out the best of their sun-ripened flavours. Other firm and crunchy vegetables work well too, as do olives and feta cheese,” she explained.
“Traditionally, it was standard practice to store vegetables, olives and occasionally cheeses under olive oil, but these days this technique is best considered as a short-term method… ,” wrote Brown.
So, you could use tomatoes, courgettes, fennel, or peppers to preserve and you’ll end up with a healthy and tasty condiment for your salad or sandwich.
Is there an expiry date for pickle?
Frankly, yes. And no.
With pickles, the trick is quite simple – keep it well shut, don’t scoop it with a wet spoon, store it in a sterilised jar at room temperature and of course, never put your finger into it (to avoid bad bacteria). Ideally, food experts suggest that you keep your pickle for a maximum of two years.
In case you have opened your jar of pickle, the best way to keep them around for a while is to store it in a refrigerator. But if you do feel like your pickles have gone bad, you would end up with a jar full of mold and even a strong stench.
Today, this condiment plays an important role in every cuisine and continues to win many more jars of brine, vinegar and spices. But as this process carries on to get adapted for the next 2000 years, the real question is… when are you making your own jar of pickle?
Here's a recipe for traditional kadu maanga or Kerala mango pickle:
By Soumini Alexander
Preparation time: 24 hours
Cooking time: 10 minutes
- 400 gms raw mango (washed, peeled and cut into small pieces)
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp red chilli powder
- 1 inch of ginger (minced)
- 5 garlic cloves (minced)
- 1 sprig of fresh curry leaf
- 3 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp split mustard seeds
- ½ tsp asafoetida
- 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
- Combine cut mango, turmeric and salt, then cover and keep aside. It will release water in 24 hours. Drain that. Don’t throw the water, reserve for later use.
- In a pan, add the sesame oil. Warm well. Add the garlic and ginger. Saute well. Switch off the flame.
- Into that hot mixture of oil with ginger and garlic, add the mustard seeds, chilli powder, asafoetida, curry leaves and an additional half teaspoon of turmeric – mix really well.
- Then add the drained mango pieces into it. Mix well till the mango is well coated by the spice mixture.
- Finally add the vinegar and mix well, again. Finally, add the drained mango water kept aside. Check for seasoning, add more salt if needed.
- Can be consumed immediately or store in refrigerator. Will stay for a few months.
Kadu maanga is usually consumed fresh and with rice porridge or 'curd rice' and the raw mango actually has a slight cooling element to it. However, using too much chilli powder overpowers the layered sour and mildly sweet flavours of a raw mango.