From East To West: Tradition Of Achaar Has Travelled The World
Image Credit: Achaar, achaar ki baat hai yeh.

Has it happened with you that when your mother serves you a bland or very basic dish for lunch or dinner, she happens to keep a bottle of achaar by your side? While I’m not a huge fan of achaar, in most Indian households, pickle holds a special place in the hearts of people and on the dining table too. In fact, despite the availability of bottled and packaged achaars these days, the act of pickling continues to be a common practice in several Indian homes. Haven’t you seen those Bollywood movies situated in the villages of Punjab and Haryana where you find opening shots of papads being dried up on the terrace along with fat jars containing a variety of pickles on the side? 

Often times, when my mother would pack plain paratha (unstuffed) for my school lunch, she would wrap a few pieces of the tangy mango pickle in a foil on the side. While I wasn’t used to eating it, my friends would climb one on top of the other for the last piece of achaar. Achaar, for those untouched by the phenomenon, is a vegetable, fruit or meat that has been dunked in oil and placed under the sun to acquire the flavour and attain a tanginess which can be preserved for days. 

The process of pickling is quite similar to fermentation, wherein the vegetables were fermented and pickled by placing them in vinegar in the West. In contrast to this, in Indian pickles, the agent of preservation is either oil or water. The original idea behind pickling was to store and sustain the non-seasonal fruits and vegetables that can be eaten later during those months when they are unavailable. Take mangoes for instance. One of the most popular kinds of achaar in India, since they are available only in the summer months, the technique of pickling makes them last longer. Similarly, carrots and radish are used for making achaar during winters. 

Etymologically Speaking 

There are two words that have been used interchangeably time and again, although the origins of both are poles apart. Pickle, on one hand, traces its roots from pekel, a Dutch word which means saline or brine. The nature of a pickle fits the description and makes total sense. On the other hand, we’ve got achaar. This is a Hindi term that is used in India but whose origins are suspected to be from Persia. The Persians translate achaar into fruits, vegetables and meat which have been powdered or salted with vinegar, honey, syrup or salt to be preserved. 

The mention of pickles or achaar has found place in several historical texts like the 17th century encyclopedia of King Basavaraja called Sivatattvaratnakara or the 1594 Kannada text of Lingapurana of Gurulinga Desika, which extensively talks about the method of achaar preparation as well as highlights 50 different kinds of achaars. The most commonly used method to this day is that of pickling with oil. 

The Pickling Tales From The Past 

Whenever we talk of the history of pickles, the timeline dates back to 2400 BC where Mesopotamians are believed to have pickled cucumbers, imported from India, in vinegar, as per the New York food museum’s website. KT Achaya, the late food historian, has also dug up on the origins of pickle in the country and found a range of pickled fruits and vegetables called Nilapati being served to the King on a lotus leaf as per the 12th century text Lilavati by Nemichandra. This resonates with 14th century treatise that is mentioned in Social Life in Medieval Karnataka by Jyotsana K Kamat and talks about green mango, green pepper, raw cardamom and several other pickle varieties. 

The aroma of achaar travelled overseas when the 17th century European sailors were fascinated by India’s love affair with achaars and chutneys. These condiments were then packed by them for the sea route as it did not go bad for days and provided a distinct taste to them. However, their feeble attempts at finding the same ingredients along with an unsupportive climate, made them resort to the vegetables that were available there. Lizzie Collingham’s work on the curries finds mention of piccalilli, wherein mangoes were substituted by apples and tomatoes and the lack of strong heat and sunlight made them resort to vinegar as a pickling agent in contrast to oil and salt used in India. 

Did you know that pickle featured as a core component of the meals of elites in Rome and Baghdad in the medieval era? Ironically, the pickles that were relished by elites to spruce up the taste buds were once a food for the masses too. 9000-year old Chinese manuscripts are proof. Chinese workers who built the Great Wall of China survived on pickled vegetables for days altogether. 

What started off as a form of preservation gained the status of an indispensable condiment in our lives. Be it aam (mango), gobhi (cauliflower), gajar (carrot), mooli (radish), laal mirch (red chilli) or the meaty chicken, fish and prawn achaar, you would never be disappointed with the Indian platter of pickles.