Vasundhara Chauhan shares memories and recipes of mouth-watering 'achars'
In college, at the hostel, achar was an absolute life saver. Without it mess food was inedible, and late night pangs would have killed us - with no access to the outside world of canteens and chai shops with hot, freshly fried bun-anda. So we pulled out jars of achar, lovingly made and packed by mothers from across the country, and ate them with matthi or sliced white bread.
Parul brought Lucknow mango pickle, of early raw mangoes, cut before they had time to develop a guthli, the hard outer shell of the seed - long, narrow slivers, deep red with chillies, reeking of heeng (asafoetida). I took aam ka achar in the monsoons and gobi gajar shaljam (cauliflower, carrot, turnip) in winter - large pieces of vegetables, immersed in a thick "gravy" of masala. The predominant flavour was mustard, fermented so well that the effect was like that of wasabi or really keen mustard that goes up the nose, almost corroding the sinuses. The veggies were crisp to the bite, bursting with sour juice, with oily, red-gold masala. We ate it smeared it on matthis or bread in our rooms at night, and mixed with smelly dining hall dal chawal at mealtimes. If you could bring yourself to eat the basic fare - this achar did duty as a vegetable.
Sometimes, there was chicken or teetar (partridge) pickle, that we'd demolish in the first week - mostly because of its sheer taste, and partly because if we didn't, it would spoil.
Achar, of one kind or another, is eaten the world over. Axi or achi is said to be the American word for chillies, possibly the root for the word. Given the geographical distance between our sub-continental achar and American chillies, the link is tenuous, but the same word is also used in Malaysia, South Africa and the West Indies. Pickle, chutney, relish, kimchi are all preserved, strongly flavoured vegetable. Achars of meat, fish, and game aren't as common: they don't keep so well and the ingredients are more expensive. But even when making a vegetable pickle it's false economy to use second grade produce like fallen mangoes or misshapen carrots that have started sprouting; they won't cut into regular shapes and they won't be juicy and crisp. Since achar is stored for at least a year it's essential to use prime quality vegetables. Winter is the time for the brightest and best cauliflowers, carrots, turnips and green chillies.
Every home has a different recipe for the same pickle. Some families have recipes for unusual combinations of vegetables. Mango, chilli and lime pickles are common. But baingan-kachalu, ganthgobhi-beans-and onions, lotus stem, new potatoes-and-eggs... the variety is almost infinite, but the basic principle is consistent. The vegetables should be heated to boiling point to sterilise, preserved with salt or acid (rai "rises" and becomes acidic) - highly acidic and strong salt solutions prevent micro-organisms from growing and enzymes from working.
One school of thought says vegetables should be dehydrated before being pickled; towards that end they are salted, sunned and shrivelled. They're not completely dry, but they are chewy and taste awful. The other school believes that vegetables in a pickle should taste as good as fresh, with the added attraction of sweet, sour and hot spices. These "un-dehydrated" ones keep forever too; they look and taste good for months though after a while they too lose their colour and firmness. But they don't spoil - because we add oil which acts as a shield against invisible spores and micro-organisms.
Most of us fear that making pickles demands an experienced cook, a special "hand", a mystical ability. In other words, our mothers.
For years I avoided pickle-making and endured bought pickles. Some are not bad, some pretty good and some abominable. Then one day I found my mother's handwritten recipe book and decided to give it a stab. I make only one departure from the original, and that is to store the pickle in glass jars. She was a great and irrational believer in earthenware martbaans as the only dependable container. I find glass is great, it allows sunlight to touch the pickle, and, in any case traditional martbaans are difficult to find.
The writer is a food writer based in New Delhi, India. Email: email@example.com
Gobhi Gajar Shalgam Achar
Traditional Punjabi winter pickle
Makes about 5 kg
- 5kg vegetables (cauliflower, carrots, turnips), washed and cut evenly
- 500g onion
- 250g ginger
- 3 whole garlic bulbs
- 300g salt
- 125g red chilli powder
- 300g rai (fine reddish brown mustard seeds)
- 1 litre mustard oil
- 600g gur
- 600g tamarind (imli)
- 750 ml (11/2 bottles) malt vinegar
Boil a vast pot of water. Put in the evenly cut vegetables and turn off the heat. fter 10 seconds, drain vegetables completely. Dry. Coarsely grind the rai. Grind onion, garlic and ginger to a fine paste. Along with salt and chilli powder, mix the lot with the oil. In a large non-reacting pan, mix this oily masala paste with the veggies. Keep for a day in the sun. Meanwhile, grate gur and soak in a little vinegar. Soak the tamarind in the remaining vinegar. Leave both overnight.
- The next morning, strain the tamarind through a fine mesh sieve and mix the clean pulp and the gur paste with the vegetables. Transfer to glass jars and place in the sun.
- To dry the vegetables, lay out on a clean cloth for a few hours. To keep the temperature high, bring more than one pot of water to boil and do the vegetables in two batches - else the introduction of kilos of cold vegetables will cool the water.
- The rai will take a few days to mature in the sun but the pickle, because of the vinegar and tamarind, will be ready to eat in a day. The veggies will be crisp.
Hari Mirch Ka Khatta-Meetha Achar
- 1 kg green chillies
- 50 g imli (tamarind)
- 250g gur/shakkar
- 20g rai (mustard seed)
- 10g methi seed (fenugreek)
- 30 ml vegetable oil
Slit chillies (or cut in halves). Make paste of imli and gur/shakkar in a little water. Roast mustard and methi on a dry griddle for a minute. Grind to a powder. Mix with the paste and stuff in the chillies if slit, or just mix thoroughly. Heat oil and cook the chillies-and-masala for about 5 minutes. Cool and bottle.
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
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