Pickles are a must add, for most of us when we eat a good wholesome Indian meal. They add a zing to the most boring fare and also are handy, easy to get to. Interestingly the worlds oldest known case of ‘pickling’- the practice of preserving a fruit or vegetable by adding an acidic agent like brine, is deeply connected with India.
The practice of pickling began a very long time ago. According to the New York Food Museum, as far back as 2030 BCE cucumbers, which are native to India and are believed to have grown wild in the foothills of the Himalayas, were carried westward to Mesopotamia, preserved in brine.
The practice of pickling seems to have become popular through the ages as people slowly discovered its benefits. Apart from its preservative properties that made food last longer and easy to carry around, it even had curative powers that Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) praised in 350 BCE. Roman Emperor Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) is also said to have been quite fond of pickles. It is believed that before a battle, he fed pickles to his men as he believed that pickles offered physical and spiritual strength!
In the 1st Century BCE, Roman Emperor Tiberius (42 BCE- 37 CE) is believed to have been a tremendous cucumber aficionado, insisting that they be a part of his meals every day. Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) notes that cucumbers were grown in ‘greenhouses’ or specularia to ensure an endless supply of ‘a delicacy for which the Emperor Tiberius had a remarkable partiality; in fact there was never a day when he was not supplied with it’. This is probably why pickles have come to be associated almost exclusively with pickled cucumbers (or gherkins) in the Western world.
Many centuries later, explorers and seafarers like Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506 CE) and Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512 CE) stocked their ships with pickles to solve the problem of food scarcity and also prevent outbreaks of scurvy caused in sailors due to a lack of vitamin C.
In India, it went beyond just preservation in brine. Ibn Battuta (1304-1377 CE) a Moroccan traveler and writer, who chronicled everyday life in the reign of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq in the 14th century CE noted that mango and ginger pickle was an accompaniment to meals:
‘The fruit [mango] is about the size of a large damask prune, which when green and not quite ripe, of those which happen to fall, they salt and thus preserve them just as lemon is preserved with us. In same manner, they preserve ginger when it is green, as also pods of pepper and this they eat with their meals’.
According to renowned food historian KT Achaya's A Historical Definition of Indian Food, Indian pickles became innovative and highly evolved, several centuries ago. ‘A Kannada work of 1594 CE, the Lingapurna of Gurulinga Desika, describes no less than 50 kinds of pickles,’ states Achaya. Pickled foods included wild mangoes, limes, lemons, brinjals and chillies as well as pork, prawns and fish. A later mention is found in the 17th-century CE work Śivatattvaratnākara, an encyclopedia of ancient Indian lore of Basavarāja, King of Keladi.
The word ‘pickle’ comes from the Dutch word pekel or the German pókel, meaning ‘salt’ or ‘brine’. The Hindi term, āchār is most likely derived from āchār in Persian which is defined as ‘powdered or salted meats, pickles, or fruits, preserved in salt, vinegar, honey, or syrup.’
While other countries have traditional pickled foods too- the German sauerkraut (sour pickled cabbage), South Korea’s kimchi, pickled herring relished in Nordic countries; the sheer variety of Indian pickles is staggering. Mango for instance can be pickled in the Gujarati/Maharashtrian sweet chunda style, or as the garlic-chilli laden generic avakaya; the spicy aam ka achar eaten in UP or the fresh thokus of the south and the rare bottles of Parsi buffena (made from whole, ripe mangoes). Others like the Akhuni Pickle from Nagaland, for which beans are carefully fermented and smoked and spiked with bhut jolokia (one of the world’s hottest peppers), Kerala’s meen achar (fish pickle) or the spicy Goan prawn balchao are also relished all across the country. Be it a rare preparation or an all-time favourite, one can be sure that in every Indian kitchen there is at least one bottle of colourful, flavourful āchār to add some spice to a dull meal!
Did You Know
Cleopatra (69-30 BCE) known for her good looks, believed her beauty came from eating ample amounts of pickles.