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We're all still at home. We're all still cooking for ourselves. We're all still mopping and sweeping and dusting our homes ourselves. Some of us are working our butts off (me, I'm doing 9 am to 11 pm Mondays through Thursdays and come Friday, thankfully, it's 9 am to 8 pm). Some others whose work depends on getting stuff done outside an actual office space are in an extended vacation of sorts (where they can't so much as step out of their homes) and bored out of their skulls (presumably).

Privileged folk (I'm torn between thanking my stars and feeling utterly guilty about being privileged) have good access to groceries. A little over the top if you ask me (I condemn this AND do not indulge in this), but our society has organic vegetables and veggie vendors pretty much every day. My husband and I have been getting basic ration for a maid who says they can't so much as step out to buy basic stuff because the cops are beating them up if they do. There's stories of migrant workers, the slow beginning of delivery services (do they earn to make money? Or are we assholey enough to keep ourselves safe and expose them to the risk of it all instead?) The disparity is alarming. Heartbreaking.

But for the folks who DO have access to the internet - it's a little heartening that they are doing as much as they can. Online classes. Social online hangouts so that they don't feel too alone. In a way, it's funny because I'm quite the home cookie and my husband is super outgoing, so he's been on online daaru parties and online quizzes and 'hanging out' with his friends and everything. And the whole craving that people get to step out to meet other people hasn't really kicked in for me yet (or crap extended family zoom calls for that matter... or hanging out online with your 'besties.') I do, of course, understand that that is me.

And in line with the whole live/online sessions people seem to enjoy... If you guys saw a little of me last week on @historywali's stories on Instagram, you probably know what I might want to talk about. Pickles. 3-4 ingredient somethings that we (as Indians) enjoy making and eating ALL the time.

(Of course, I could have sent this last weekend but it was far too fresh (pun intended) in peoples' minds... I got busy doing other things... I'm using a Windows work laptop because my Air won't work and typing a newsletter on it makes me grumpy, oh! the excuses are endless! Anyway, here I am! This is me *launches into one song that you can judge me for*)

Loosely speaking, most pickles made in India are composed of the following: fresh/local/seasonal veggies + masala + preservative/pickling liquid + cooking agent.

Now, let's break that down, shall we?

Pickles can be made in the winters with shalgam (radish) and gajar (carrot, the purple kind, as well as the red ones) - up north... mangoes in the West and the South before the onset of the summers when you can use mangoes green and unripe...

That locally available fruit and veg are used for this is no surprise - fiddlehead ferns make a DELICIOUS lingadi ka achaar, bamboo shoots make a mesu pickle (which I'm told is really tasty)

Recipes and books mention different kinds of gourds and tubers, some greens (arvi and gongura being common), fruits (amla, starfruit, jackfruit, ambarella, well, mango...). Peels, veggie skins... And then, of course, there's meats - fish, beef, fish eggs, chicken, the list is endless.

Next is masalas -

These can be a collection of spices, just turmeric and red chilli powder. Jeera seeds (or powder), coriander seed (or powder), mustard seeds (yellow and/or black) and fennel seeds are quite common too. Garlic is something I have seen every now and then too. I have also seen the use of fenugreek/methi seed/powder in a variety of Indian pickles. It, obviously, made me curious. Because a lot of Indian pickles are spicy and chilli heavy, the methi seeds act as a coolant of sorts and help prevent heartburn and ulcers.
Then comes the preservative.

Salt (rock salt) finds its way into many recipes. There's boiling hot oil. There's vinegar. There's tamarind or lemon that act as souring agents. There's sugar and its stickiness. Of course, using sugar to pickle would then go into the chhunda and murabba territory.

Curing with salt or brining veggies/fruits in big ceramic pots that are then tightly covered is an age-old technique.

I've never made one myself, but kesar and elaichi mango pickles are a thing too!

That brings us to cooking. In the days of old, fruit and veg were dried out in the sun and taken in at sunset and set to dry out again the following day. They say the heat of the sun "cooked" these veggies - or, well, making them more resistant to germs for sure. Plus, they ensured the crunch of the veggies was kept intact, though the moisture is mostly driven out. That's also why pickles like the Gujarati chibhda nu athanu or other varieties of cucumber are often made after removing their seeds and scooping the insides out.- the primary reason being eliminating anything that might prevent proper drying of the vegetable/fruit or introduce unwanted growth (germs, worms, etc). There are also several sources that say that the direct sun is responsible to provide enough warmth required for the bacteria to aid fermentation.

Meat, of course, are cooked. Not to say there aren't vegetable pickle varieties that aren't cooked. They are.

Dare I say storing pickles in jars in kitchen pantries or even refrigerating them ferment them. It does. Refrigeration does slow the process down. But it happens nonetheless. And it's not a bad thing. It adds an all-natural tanginess to the pickle.

Since Indian pickling DOES use fermentation, vegetables/fruits/meat are sun-dried/cured/cooked and stored in airtight containers to avoid letting moisture in. This helps produce by-products like carbon dioxide, acetic acid and lactic acid. The acids that are produced act as a natural preservative and prevent the pickle from going rancid. Exposing a pickle to moisture - a few drops of water, digging a wet spoon into a jar of your favourite pickle, etc are sure shot ways of making the pickle go rancid (or worse still, form fungus on the surface layer of the pickle.

I thought I'd be a wee little different this time and plug some easy pickle recipes here. These typically take only about 30 minutes to make. And last only a meal or three, if made in small quantities.
  1. A mild variation of the prawn pickle recipe I showed on #HistoryOnAPlate
  2. An Andhra (ummm, now Telangana) style mutton pickle
  3. Lingad/Lingri/Lingadu ka achaar from Himachal Pradesh
  4. Gharab (fish roe) nu achaar that Parsis LOVE!
  5. Gunda nu athanu (also called manjack or lesoda or gumberry) that I grew up eating
Remember, it's as simple as meat/veggie/fruit + masala + preservative +  cooking. And LOTS of patience.
I'm sure we all have ways of getting through this crisis - for some, it's an extended vacation... some are working more hours than they normally would... some are learning a new art form (others, re-kindling it) - painting or embroidery or even yoga! But at the end of it all, we've all got to eat. And some people may be extremely comfortable with eating and/or cooking the same things day in and day out. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But a little bit of variety (especially of the good kind) never hurt anyone.

With that, here are some book recommendations for this month.
This book is a gem - it has everything from local veggies, no-oil pickles, pickles from veggie peels, fruits, everything (yes, it's vegetarian, but still!)

Here's an online resource to download the book.
I've read Karen Solomon's Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It and also her book Asian Pickles. And both are quite detailed and very interesting. I've seen the index of this book on Amazon and simple as it is, I'm sure it's an excellent starting point for one to use and then let their imagination takes them places!
It goes without saying, stay safe, y'all.
Cook your hearts out. And eat well.

Until next time, nom nom!
- Meha
P.S.: I have LOADS more gyaan to give on the subject. But an hour of an Instagram live is not enough. A 500-word newsletter is not enough either. Hit me up if you want me to dole out more useless information on the subject.
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