It was a picture that made me thoughtful. The bright red colour left my mouth moist and my senses could smell the tangy aroma deep in my mind. The humble pickle that is a necessary accompaniment for every food serving in any Indian household occupies an enviable position in the food hierarchy. Pickle itself is a word that is dipped in the sourness and summer.
Most people use the great outdoors to indulge in the ritual of pickling. But, the picture that was staring at me was not the simple rounded vegetables floating in a sea of brine. It was much beyond the ordinary. It was the holy matrimony of many other coloured spices with tanginess that can make any faint hearted to swoon.
My own adventures with pickling have been very humble. Let us just say that I have tried many times, after which, I have simply ended up being in one rather than making a great jar full of spicy concoction.
It has more to do with the whole atmosphere — the festivity of planning that includes coming up with a list of what to make followed by an elaborate discourse on when to start the process — something to look forward to. But, the past year and this summer makes me nostalgic. Time and again, I am transported to the time in my life when jars were filled with the most mouth watering bites in spicy oil.
Grandma’s magical hands at work
When I was a little girl, grandma would spend whole summers making many things — spicy poppadoms, pickles and not to mention sun drying many vegetables. We, the little ones then, indulged in watching Grandma’s magical hands at work. It would start at the very beginning of finding the right ingredients — be it the right mango or the right chillies with the exact colour and potency that could make our hearts flutter.
As kids, we generally liked her agility to talk through the whole process. She would tell us tales of her childhood, her mother at work and what it meant to her back in her days. Her eyes would light up with nostalgia and we would watch her work her way through picking out the tender mangoes and slice them into neat little pieces.
There is something about tender mangoes that makes even the utterance of the word moisten the mouth. It is perhaps about the tangy taste that can dismiss hot summers into cool blissful afternoons. Grandma had strict rules about touching the cut mangoes, “don’t touch with wet hands”, she would admonish. We would then extend our little fingers for scrutiny and we would be allowed one little piece each.
Our next stop always had to be at the kitchen where Ma would be busy making the evening tea. After much begging and prodding, she would give us a little bowl of salt and chili powder. Armed with this little booty, we would dash out to our little hide out under the large blue windows.
Prying eyes of the household
Here, away from the prying eyes of the whole household, my sister and I would bite into the tender mango and make funny faces as the tanginess would set our face muscles into action and this would send us into peels of laughter. The whole adventure of laughing and biting into the tangy mango would last a while. Once done with all our silliness, we would watch grandma put away the huge mason jar with a fresh batch of pickles.
Now, after all these years, this little picture of mango pickle dressed in dark red chili powder and drenched in oil makes me homesick. I neither have a mason jar nor do I have Grandma’s magical hands that can churn out the best mango pickle.
I sit on the couch racking my brains to find a way to satiate this hungry need to replicate a bit of my childhood. So, I walk up to the store-bought bottled spicy mango in oil. I pull out a spoon and take a deep breath in. A little movie from my childhood plays in my head and I smile as I take the spoon in my mouth. But, I want more.
I dash to the refrigerator and extract a half dry raw mango. I cut out a little slice and gratefully dip it in salt and chili powder. I then walk up to the mirror and bite into the chunk and watch my face in action. I laugh deliriously. Some things never get old.
Sudha Subramanian is an author and writer based in Dubai. Twitter: @sudhasubraman