Food preservation is an essential task in managing any household kitchen effectively. For ages, various food preservation methods have been practised in Indian kitchens. It helps to reduce food wastage and ensures vital foods are supplied to the less connected parts of the world.
I had just reached Mangalore, a city known for its delicious cuisines, where my Aunt, Vijay Lakshmi Mallya, a cook par excellence and a treasure trove of culinary knowledge, resides. Her recipes for various south Indian dishes, cooked in distinct regional styles, have always attracted me to spend a few days with her, learning the tricks and fundamentals of cooking South Indian Vegetarian dishes. Within the first hour of my arrival, Auntie and I were already in deep discussions about various ingredients, vegetables and spices she uses in her cooking. As she explained the cooking methods, and all that she had planned to cook during my stay in Mangalore, my eyes lay upon the jars of Jackfruit steeped in salted brine. My curiosity arose as jackfruit was in season; a few jars were still brined, and a batch was frozen. Her freezer had in store a few essential vegetables which were not in season; a shelf was lined up with homemade pickles of different vegetables, a few varieties of pappadums, chutneys, and jams. As she showed me some of the fresh vegetables she had just bought to prepare for lunch, I couldn’t help but ask the reason and method for preserving different foods.
She had learnt to do it from her mother and later her mother-in-law. During the monsoon season, it rains continuously for days. Going out vegetable shopping is impossible as mobility becomes an issue. And in any circumstance, there would always be something to cook in her kitchen. The brined jackfruit is for the rainy day. As she lives alone now, it’s brined in less quantity; however, earlier, there was always enough to feed the family for a few days.
Food preservation is an essential task in managing any household kitchen effectively. For ages, various food preservation methods have been practised in Indian kitchens. Pickling is one of the most common and celebrated methods of food preservation in India. Pickles are made to preserve vegetables, fruit or meat for a long time, increasing the shelf life for months and enhancing the taste using spices, oil, and salt. Pickling thus helps store the seasonal produce all year, and we can enjoy a mango pickle or a carrot pickle throughout the year.
Salt brine is another effective way of preserving a food item, wherein the brined ingredient can be taken out anytime and used in cooking. Excessive salt, spice, or oil helps inhibit bacterial growth, which is an easy way to preserve food at home. Similarly, sugar is an effective preservative, which helps increase the shelf life. A lot of seasonal fruits are thus processed into jams and squashes, which then can be stored for a long time.
Fermentation has been an effective food preservation method used widely in India. I fondly remember, every winter, my father preparing a Kanji (Fermented beverage) made with Black Carrots. The spiced and seasoned kanji is kept in the Sun to ferment for a few days. The fermented liquid has probiotic properties, being healthy for the body and effectively helping preserve the black carrots for a season.
Our house used to have a big terrace, a common place to sun dry the pappadums. Drying soaks away all the moisture from the pappads, and the dried snack can then be stored in air-tight containers and fried as and when required. Sun-drying Chillies, spices, vegetables and fruits for pickles and Papads are everyday household items used for preservation. In the coastal regions, one can find a variety of seafood, especially prawns and fish, Sun-dried for later use.
Smoking food for preservation is another exciting way food is treated in India. Meats, especially pork meat, are smoked extensively across northeast India, increasing the meat’s life and giving it a unique flavour. While preparing northeast Indian dishes, I often use the smoked bhoot jolokia chillies I have stored and use them sparingly in the recipes.
Food preservation is a practice that helps reduce food wastage and ensures vital foods are supplied to the less connected parts of the world. In the Himalayas, winters cause immobility, and road connectivity is hampered during the months of heavy snow. In these times, the age-old food preservation traditions come into practice and feed families during the harsh winters. During the season of good produce, when the perishable food is in plenty, their processing and preservation help reduce wastage, and the heirloom recipes can be prepared all year long. A simple practice of freezing peas in freezers makes us enjoy the delicious aloo matar, or matar paneer, all year round.
Similarly, many seasonal fruits are pureed and frozen to use in beverages and sweets. A simple method of evaporating water from the milk and simmering the clarified butter to produce Ghee helps upcycle a perishable product like Milk. It increases its shelf life in the form of ghee. Milk is fermented to form cheese. Grapes are fermented to produce wine. There are numerous examples where food items are processed to convert a perishable ingredient into a product with a longer shelf life, reducing food wastage and the environmental effect on agricultural production.
Food processing in today’s age has become an important industry and is vital in eradicating hunger, Food wastage and agricultural carbon footprints. Smoked Meat, Canned seafood, frozen or dehydrated fruits and vegetables, ready-to-cook dishes, and frozen snacks are everyday examples of processed food we use daily. Most governments or nations keep a buffer stock of essential food items at the macro level. Preservation and food processing techniques are significant in preparing for calamities and food emergencies.
Thus, food preservation has been important in homes and institutionalised food production for many years and ages. Pasteurisation was an important development in the history of food preservation and is used worldwide to preserve and transport milk to homes. Additives are added to foods at home and commercially to improve shelf life and the quality of prepared dishes. A simple squeeze of lemon is an anti-oxidant and prevents fats from oxidising. Similarly, spices, salt, and sugar are simple and effective ingredients for food preservation. Vacuum Packaging or modified atmosphere packaging is used commercially in food processing, keeping the food fresh until we open the packet or the vacuum-packaged food product.
Food preservation is thus a necessary process which held great importance when the technology to process, preserve or refrigerate was scant. It has great significance today, as the growing population, reduced agricultural output and climatic changes put us in front of dire needs to reduce the agricultural burden and improve food security. And in the future, a lot depends on the food processing industry to create effective, prudent, and ecological ways to utilise food resources to optimum use and create a safe, healthy, and sustainable food system worldwide. We have ancient culinary wisdom and futuristic technology to bank upon, and we can evolve responsibly.
Sidharth Bhan Gupta, Founder of 361 Degrees Hospitality, is a Hospitality / Food and Beverage / Restaurant Consultant, Travelling across India on a Cultural and Culinary Exploration.