For something that is so stereotypically "Indian", it is interesting that the roots of the word achar are quite foreign. The word for pickle, but really meaning something salty, chilli and sour in many different parts of the country, most probably comes from the Portuguese achi for chilli. That in turn comes from the Aztec axi, pointing to the Colombian exchange, through which varieties of chilli finally found their way to our part of the world and became so indelibly entrenched in our cuisines. What is equally interesting, if you are fascinated by etymology like I am, is that the old Irish word for "edge" is ochair. Nothing in Irish cuisine may be as edgy or sharp as some of our achars of course but roots of words, roots of plants and roots of cuisines all point to a certain global village view of the world. We are more connected that we think to each other.
Few things connect all corners of India more than the achar, specifically mango pickle. Like lentils and fish curries, this is a class of preserved food that is found in slightly altered forms in almost all parts of the Subcontinent. From the Gujarati/Maharashtrian sweet chunda pickle that you can eat during fasting to the garlic-chilli laden generic avakaya (the word just means "pickle") from Andhra, from the delicious hing-and-chilli aam ka achar eaten with mathris in UP to the fresh thokus of the south and submerged in mustard oil Punjabi ones, there are mango pickles distinctive to every region of India and perhaps every community too.
The Art of Pickling
While pickling as a way of preserving foods has been part of India's varied culinary traditions throughout history, what makes the mango pickle interesting is how just a few changes in ingredients change the character of the pickle almost entirely, even when the main ingredients-mangoes, chilli, salt and quite a lot of the spices (mustard, fennel, asafoetida) remain the same.
The mangoes used for the pickles are of course different in different parts of the country. As the first kairis, or raw mangoes start coming into the market, the pickling season begins. The mangoes used for achars are not the ones that we eat as fruit. In some cases, the achar varieties are pretty prized and fast disappearing too - like the baby mango from Andhra Pradesh, pickled whole, in a painstaking process.
Chennai-based entrepreneur Chinmaya Arjun Raja is a man of many interests. A trained musician, he is part of SpicMacay's national executive. He is a serious French wine enthusiast. But it is pickles that are now taking up all his time. Raja, who has started retailing his hand-made "Panakam" pickles, made by different families in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu according to traditional community recipes, is now focusing on making a pickle map of India. Peninsular India is the focus for now but it is obviously going to be an exhaustive task with Raja trying to research family and community recipes and how these also change with geography.
If there are scores of varieties of sambhar spread regions, mango pickle is pretty much the same.
Family Pickle Tradition
Raja and his family make the elusive whole mango pickle traditional to Anakapalle, near Vishakapatnam. Historically, every family in this belt had its own version of this mango pickle. But this is a dying art now. Whole mangoes are cut at the top to remove the seed and any impurities and then stuffed with spices, before being fermented and sun dried for 1-2 weeks. The Kolangova or Collector (Totapuri) variety of mango is used. Today, just about 10-15 families still make the pickle in this region.
Raja's family recipe consists of also sweetening the pickle by adding jaggery-this after all, is also a sugar cane belt. But geography aside, Raja says it could also be the history of his community that shows up in the pickle. The Kshatriya community is said to have moved to this part of the country from Saurashtra in 1400 AD -hence the sweet influence. Even the other mango pickles are sweetened in this coastal region by the community.
CommentsThe sour of the mango with chillies and varying degrees of sweetness can be an addictive combination. We can see the same flavour profile not just in the chunda of Gujarat/Maharashtra but also in the khatti-meethi launji of UP. An instant pickle, this is a summer condiment on many tables, across communities. Kalonji, onion seeds, is a dominant and unusual spice, for dices of mangoes, cooked with a little sugar, oil and whole red chillies. The mishmash can be eaten fresh with paranthas or just hot rice and arhar dal. Try it, next season.