India’s pickle people: Decades-old culinary heirlooms, nostalgia

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How can I fix it?” Renu Jain asked on a Facebook food group, bringing my scrolling to a grinding halt.

A 30-year-old pickle.

A pickle fiend myself, I was intrigued and browsed more than 300 comments on Renu’s post. Renu Jain’s Facebook post prompted me to read more than 300 comments. I am a pickle lover myself and was fascinated by the responses. Half were people as amazed as I was while the other half offered tips on fixing the pickle’s salt levels, saying they were common in their households.

“My 86-year-old father remembers having pickles that were 15-20 years old,” one said.

“I have a 20-year-old lemon pickle my mother-in-law gave me,” another said. So many pickles, 10 to 50 years old, eaten sparingly to conserve them for their medicinal properties.

These aged pickles can accompany meals, be eaten on their own or with a little sugar to cut the saltiness, mixed into breads like parathas or diluted with buttermilk.

Pickles, in general, are an integral part of the Indian culinary landscape. Each community (and there are many) in the 28 states and eight union territories pickles local, seasonal produce.

Spices and techniques vary. Some pickles are made with a simple brine of saltwater. Some marinate and sun-dry their pickles, while others immerse them in oil, usually sesame or mustard oils. Commercial pickles have become popular because of the lack of time to make them from scratch and limited space for sun-drying or storing them. However, there are always a few bottles in most homes. A lack of time to make pickles from scratch and a lack of space to sun-dry or store them have led to the rise of commercial pickle-making, but there are always a couple of bottles of homemade pickles in most homes.

And, as I was finding out, some are decades old.

How do they last so long?[Courtesy of Rakesh Raghunathan]

“For a pickle to last years, it has to be dry,” said Krish Ashok, author of Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking.

“People figured out that to preserve anything, first, all water needs to be removed. Sun-drying and dehydration are the best ways to preserve pickles. Also, they found that salty environments are hostile to bacteria and molds. Acids also help to kill microbes. Vinegar, for example. He explained that the last technique is to reduce oxygen in order to prevent oxidation. This is where oil comes into play. Pickled raw mango submerged in oil lasts a few years, although not decades, because the oil will go rancid.

Vernika Awal’s 22-year-old lemon pickle

The lemon lends itself to long-term ageing more than any other. Lemon pickles are made by washing, drying, slicing, and adding salt proportionate to the weight of the fruit. Then, they’re sun-dried and mixed with other ingredients. The probiotic properties of aged lemon pickles have been hailed as having healing powers. Rummy Nagpal, 51, says that these begin to form after three to four year of maturing. This pickle is an age-old cure for bad stomachs, colds and fevers. Citrus is rich in vitamin C. Carom, also known as omum, can be taken to treat diarrhoea or acidity. Rock salt helps with constipation and bloating. In some regions, cloves or asafoetida are added, both remedies for vomiting and other stomach upsets.

Probiotic pickles are a common myth, Krish said. “Probiotic” means that microbes are present. Pickles that are preserved in acid or salt will not survive for decades. When you pickle in salt or acids, all bacteria is killed,” he explained, adding that such pickles can be called postbiotic.

Rummy Nagpal’s 15-year-old pickle

Vernika Awal 22 year lemon pickle
“In the early days of the pickling process, the fruit releases water. After the water is gone, some bacteria will have colonised and broken down naturally to produce beneficial probiotic compounds. Once the water is gone and added salt has killed all the bacteria, some of the useful things produced remain, though with time, this postbiotic value would decrease,” he said.[Courtesy of Vernika Awal]

Heirloom recipe

“I was inspired to make lemon pickle and preserve it as an heirloom, thanks to a classmate who would bring a 50-year-old pickle in her lunch box when I was in school in the late 1970s,” said Renu Jain, who I connected with on social media after her intriguing post.

grandmother even had a 100-year-old pickle she kept under lock and key in a special pickle room,” she continued.

Pickle
The 56-year-old teacher and entrepreneur used a recipe from her paternal aunt to make 20kg (44lb) of her 30-year-old pickle, and now has only about 5kg (11lb) in glass bottles in the kitchen attic.[Courtesy of Rummy Nagpal]

Jayalakshmi Gopalakrishnan, 80, has a narthangai (Tamil for citron) pickle in her refrigerator that she got from her mother when she left her hometown of Chennai to move to Mumbai in 1970 as a young bride. To this day, she said, she can still see the family lemon tree behind their house.

Jayalakshmi Gopalakrishnan’s 70-year-old citron pickle

“It was most likely around 20 years old by the time I was given it, making the 150 grammes

that remain today over 70 years old,” Jayalakshmi said.[Her]The pickle is completely black, as aged lemon pickles tend to become, and was made by simply sun-drying salted sliced lemons.

Creating your own heirloom

In Rummy’s home in Mumbai, another lemon pickle is ageing away, waiting for a chance to be served at her daughter’s future wedding celebration.

Jayalakshmi Gopalakrishnan 70 year citron pickle
Rummy has been making and selling heritage and new-age pickles under her brand name Herbs n Spices for 20 years, but this pickle, she said, has a story behind it.[Courtesy of Jayalakshmi Gopalakrishnan]

Before their daughter was born, her husband shared a childhood memory with her of going to a wedding in Jalandar, Punjab, where the guests were served a traditional kala nimbu achar (black lemon pickle) that had been in the family for years.[5.3oz]It came with the family from what is now Pakistan during the 1947 partition, carried the whole way in a bharani (ceramic pickle pot). It was brought from what is now Pakistan during the 1947 partition, in a ceramic pickle pot. The guests loved it. The jar is neatly labeled “27 Years” and sits on a shelf in the corner of her kitchen. Inside is a dark, slightly glazed black pickle, the lemon halves looking a bit grainy.

Rummy’s pickle experiments, marked with how long they have been ageing

Rummy also has a 10-year-old lemon pickle, immersed in its own juices, on its way to blackening. She also makes black lemon pickle to sell, and ages it for at least four more years before packaging it. They were popular around 35 years ago but lack of space, time and other factors has led to their decline. Rummy explained that customers who purchase his black lemon pickle talk about their childhood memories and how the taste takes them back to a simpler time. Other reactions are prevented by salt and dehydration. However, certain compounds will break down over time regardless of what you do. “This happens to a group of antioxidants, or phenolic molecules, that impart colour to foods,” explained Krish. He was referring to the anthocyanins, which make fruits and veggies red, blue, or purple, carotenoids, which produce red, yellow, and orange, and chlorophyll that produces green. It’s the same process, just over years,” he said. … It’s the same process, just over years,” he said.

With each passing year, these aged pickles also gather nostalgia.

Rummy Nagpal’s 27-year-old lemon pickle looks grainy as it ages

“My paternal grandmother’s legacy lives on in the khatta-meeta nimbu achar

she made a month before she passed away in September 2001,” said Vernika Awal, a food writer based in the Delhi National Capital Region who has only 250 grammes (8.8oz) left in a 1kg (2.2lb) bottle that is now 22 years old.

From what Vernika recalls of the process, her Punjabi family uses lemons with a slightly hard peel. The lemons are then mixed with ajwain (powdered sugar), khand, black salt, and table salt. Mustard oil heated to smoking temperature is added. It’s a physical form of memory, savouring something made so long ago,” she added. Rakesh Raghunathan is a food historian, celebrity cook and TV host. He has a 33 year-old bottle of pickle that his family affectionately refers to as “grandfather pickle” (in Tamil). Rakesh said that because we only spent a few days in Kodaikanal each year, the pickle was not used very often. My grandfather … loved to have his thayir sadam

Three jars with pickles of varying ages, 10, 15 and 27 years
with a bit of this pickle; that’s how the name came about,” Rakesh said.[Courtesy of Rummy Nagpal]

In India, pickles are more than just a condiment.

They are unique, flavourful heirlooms, and the art of making them needs to be kept alive.

They are a sign of love when served, a soothing balm for the homesick, a burst of flavour for those unwell and a memory of someone long gone.

Rummy Nagpal 15-year-old pickle