Pickle stories are the best stories. We all have endless stories, usually with the matriarch as their protagonist. Growing up, they have been a part of our upbringing and culture with memories packed in mason jars. Remember the tapestry of white muslin used for drying of ingredients in the verandah or terrace and the covered martabans across the kitchen counter? However, all of this was mostly a small-town tradition, and moreover in time when fewer families were nuclear and had the time for nourishment of the soul. A time when each family's recipes were stories being handed down from one generation to the next. But as we grew up and moved to bigger cities, with apartment living and a fast-paced lifestyle, it's hard to keep those recipes whose secret ingredient is time and effort, alive.
Our current way of life demands everything quick and ready-made. So, off-the-shelf pickles have somehow replaced the long-forgotten and lost recipes of desi Indian pickles. Preetika Chawla, founder of Pickle Shickle, a brand that sells the taste of homemade pickles in a jar, says, “Our recipe is something that's been handed down to us by our grandmother. We grew up in an environment where in both our grandparents' homes, the focus was on eating together and eating grand. An entire section of the table was homemade pickles. Multan inspired from dadi, and Burma + Coorg inspired from nani; these are stories for another day, but that's what all meals with them were, experiences. We now have regular customers who share detailed recipes that their grandparents handed down to them, but they have no time to make, yet would love to share. One of our customers shared her grandma's Bihari tomato chutney recipe with us. It is divine! Apparently, no one's made it in her family for over a decade. It is such a feeling of community, that particular taste or flavour.”
Living in this 'instant' culture today, Chawla decided to package and share memories. “My mother cooks every single batch of pickle that leaves our kitchen. It's our way of sending out a little love, hoping people will pause while they're eating, and think about the pace and taste they grew up with.”
Stressing on some of the lesser-known Indian pickles that need to make a comeback, Chawla recalls, “I remember growing up on an Arbi pickle. Its base is water and a very special brine. Another staple at our table was 'Sohanjna' (Indian drumstick) achaar (Multanis, you should know this one). I'm personally very keen to share these with the world. On a commercial scale however, these recipes don't really exist. I do wish that black lime pickle (preserved for decades) would be more available. And that chopped red chilli pickle too.”
As a brand, Pickle Shickle does endeavour to bring the lesser-known but broadly relatable recipes to homes around the world, “None of our pickles include the regulars. Mainly because we won't dare to compete with the OG! It's the ones that were too complicated to pass down the generations outside of a piece of paper. The authentic kasundi that another Bengali customer sent us. Or the ‘Nyautijau’ - crispy onion and garlic Burmese chilli oil that our grandma passed down to us. These are the ones we are working on re-telling and sharing.”
Now let’s talk about the role of Indian pickles on Indian plates, shall we? Pickle is the only thing that gets you out of a pickle during a bad lunch. It is the most important side-hero of an Indian meal, no matter how bad the food is, a dash of pickle just elevates everything. Our country's diversity also shows in our food, including our pickles. Not only do you find different types of pickles across different regions of our country, but Indian pickles are also distinctly different from pickles found around the world. It is one of the few common foods that one can find on the plates of everyone irrespective of their ethnicity, their background or socio-economic status.
Advaith Inamke, founder of Nomad Food Project says, “It is a tragedy that for various reasons over time, we have lost a plethora of pickle recipes. And unfortunately, we are still losing some pickle recipes because they are not as widely known or widely made. For us at Nomad it's always been about working on products which are heard of but curating them with our own special twist. After seeing the success of our current takes on indigenous recipes such as the thecha, we want to work on something very dramatic such as a bacon podi. This is the way we see ourselves growing and moving forward to work on such indigenous recipes which people have an understanding of when it comes to the flavour profiles and then giving them a very dramatic twist with something like bacon. We don't just want to white label existing recipes and make it a marketing game which we have seen to be happening for decades now in India.”
Inamke feels that the northeastern region of India has a lot to offer in terms of food. A lot of the food and culture of the North-east is restricted to the region itself; it is yet to be explored in the mainstream. “They have a ton of lesser-known vegetarian and non-vegetarian pickles that most people outside the region have never even heard of. I firmly believe that all they need is an avenue to bring those pickle recipes to light and it wouldn't take too long for pickles from North-east to carve out a fan-base for themselves. I may even go so far as to say that their non-vegetarian pickle recipes have the potential to become the most popular non-vegetarian condiments in India. Having said that, I recently tried a local version of what we call beef jerky in Goa which was served alongside a cocktail and it blew my mind. I spoke with the owners and they said they source it from Kerala.”
There are so many flavours and recipes packed into pockets of the country that exploring them in a lifetime is not possible. “But that is what encourages us to keep exploring and keep getting inspiration from them to push these products into a wider market and get them the recognition they deserve,” Inmake adds.
What Nomad Food Project is doing differently, is creating unique condiments that are not otherwise available to the people. With an aim to fill a void in the Indian food market and bring new recipes on the table that are previously unheard of, they explore some lesser-known recipes, experiment with them, add their own touch and offer some refreshingly new flavours to the customers. Inmake elaborates, “For instance, being based in Maharashtra, we have tried to bring some Maharashtrian & Goan pickles to the plates of people across the country. We wish to educate people about pickles and other condiments found in the Deccan region. We try to create several flavours to suit the palate of people from all over. And while the road is long, we have been able to spread larger awareness about Maharashtrian and Goan pickles and introduce people to condiments that they had not previously heard of.”
Similarly, Jha Ji, an online pickle brand based in Bihar is also trying to bridge the gap and diversify the pickle culture by developing relationships with farmers to grow rare fruits in large quantities and introducing a few of these forgotten pickles to their store. A few pickles from Bihar that should find everyone's attention are oal ginger green chilli pickle, amra pickle, and jackfruit fruit pickle.
Kalpana and Uma, founder of Jha Ji, says, “The loss of diversity on our plates is not good. Our food options have shrunk over the last many decades, and as a result the farmers too have reduced the variety they grow. Take for example, amra. A wild fruit that used to be available a few decades ago during monsoon season in abundance. People had trees in their backyard, or they grew by the roadside. Now it's difficult to get this fruit in any significant quantity. What gets grown is decided by what we eat. By eating less diverse food, we'll lose out on many things that people earlier had. The second thing is also about the lifestyle. In cities, you've less space, people have less time. And slowly the traditional recipes are not getting transferred as much, generation to generation, as they did earlier. That's also leading to many food items, including pickles, disappearing.”