In the last few months, our lemon tree has been generous and given us a basketful of lovely fruit. They looked so beautiful that they inspired me to make an Indian pickle. A lot of people ask me what the difference is between “Western” pickles and “Indian” pickles. Western pickles, like dill pickles, are submerged in a brining solution made up of water, vinegar and spices. Indian pickle, or “achaar”, on the other hand, is made up of traditional spices and vegetables in oil. You can delve into a jar a mere week after you’ve prepared it.
This type of pickle is fermented without yeast, and is preserved with oil. It’s spicy, tangy, and smoky in flavor.
Preparing my achaar brought back memories from more than 40 years ago of me in the Northern India city of Lucknow. My maternal grandparents had their home there and all of our family gathered there for both summer and winter vacations.
Winters were lovely outdoors in the afternoons. The women would gather and some food activity would always be going on. Making massive amounts of pickles was what I remember the most: Large amounts of vegetables, spices and big huge cooking pots to prepare everything. One very popular North Indian pickle was a mixture of cauliflower, carrots and turnip. The spices with these particular vegetables create a slightly sweet and spicy flavor.
Our grandmothers and great aunts would sit and give directions to the daughters and daughter-in-laws and kids. All the women and girls in the family would be a part of the pickle process. It’s amazing how some actions force you to recall memories, as if you were right back where you were all those years ago. Last Monday, I once again felt the cool on my skin and the warmth of the sun. I smell the prepped vegetables and the warm love of generations of wonderful women.
Picture a beautiful courtyard with a patch of velvet lawn. Sheets are spread on the lawn and blanched veggies are drying on it. Mounds of deep red carrots, white cauliflower and turnips with a shy shade of purple. Portable stoves have huge pots, oil gets heated, and spices are toasted. The pungent and spicy smells fill the air, eyes watering at times with the pure mustard oil. I remember an aunt who smoked the hookah, shouting instructions while seated on the “charpai,” a simple woven bed. And then I return – back in my kitchen in California thousands of miles away from Lucknow. It’s a different time but a familiar and wonderful sense of continuity.
My kitchen fills with aromas, memories and a lot of love that will be shared both through the recipes and little samples with family, friends and students.
Pickle can be enjoyed with so many things – an Indian meal of curried lentils and rice – or think outside the jar – try alongside grilled pork chops or topped on pita chips. So many possibilities!
Lemon Pickle (“Nimbu Achaar”)
Prep Time: 20 minutes Cook Time: 15 minutes Yields: 2.5 cups
2 cups lemons with peel, diced into quarter inch pieces
6 chilies, jalapeno or Serrano
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup fenugreek seeds
1/4 cup whole mustard seeds (yellow or black are fine)
2 tbsp ground cumin
2 tbsp ground coriander
2 tbsp ground sesame seed
2 tbsp garam masala
2 tbsp ground paprika
4 tbsp red wine vinegar
Juice from three large lemons
1 tbsp salt
Optional: 12 curry leaves
1. Heat the vegetable oil in a large saucepan; add fenugreek and mustard seeds. Heat until the seeds start to pop!
2. Add the curry leaves, cumin, coriander, sesame seed, garam masala and parika. Stir this mixture over medium heat for about 4-5 minutes – you should really start to smell the toasted spices coming together.
3. While the spices are toasting, wash the chilies and pat dry with a towel
4. Once the spices are toasted, add the chilies and lemon to the saucepan. Stir so that all the lemons are coated with the mixture.
5. Add the lemon juice, vinegar and salt. Lower the heat and stir frequently for about 8-10 minutes. Constant stirring will prevent the spices from burning at the bottom of the pan.
6. Transfer to a glass bowl and tightly cover with plastic wrap or an air tight lid. Leave out of the refrigerator to sit for at least a week. Stir twice a day during the first week.
7. After a week, transfer the pickle to mason jar/jars, making sure that the pickle is packed down, ensuring that oil covers the jar. This will help preserve the pickle for up to a month. If you can’t cover each jar with the oil, put it in your refrigerator. It will keep for up to three months there.