One of my favourite childhood memories was helping my mother make achaar. Those large ceramic jars filled to the brim with fresh pickles, sitting in the sun on terraces, flashing back to a simpler time. In fact, no meal was ever complete without a spoonful of the sweet, sour, spicy, and frequently tangy condiment. Given their extended shelf life, pickles are an excellent way to preserve seasonal produce, and each region of India has its unique style of pickling local ingredients. To celebrate the season, we tapped three chefs to give us their iteration of a pickle they grew up relishing.
Founder & Chef , Sequel & Noon , Mumbai
Choudhary’s earliest pickle memories revolve around different seasons, each bringing in a new bounty of fresh produce that’s preserved to be savoured in the next season. Growing up in Ladakh, Choudhary saw her nani make over 40 types of achaars through different seasons. “It was an elaborate process of picking the freshest produce, washing, sun-drying, hand-pounding the masalas in a mortar pestle, getting achar barnis (jars) ready, and fermenting the achar by keeping it in the sun for four to eight weeks, depending on the season. A tradition that my mother has kept alive and one that I have proudly inherited from her,” she says.
For her upcoming book, Preserve, Choudhary picked tamyung (swede) and labuk (heirloom radish) from the vegetable patch of one of the farmers she works with from Nimoo in Ladakh and made tamyung, labuk achar.
The vegetables are washed in the stream outside her home, chopped, and then sundried for a few hours. “We prepared the herbs and spices while the veggies were being sundried. This recipe uses only wild herbs foraged locally with thangyir (yellow Manali chilli—the only spice used in Ladakhi cuisine), rock salt, and wood-pressed mustard oil. The wild herbs used for this pickle are umbok (that almost resembles a fern), which grows wildly by the streams, skotse (wild garlic), kosnyot (wild caraway), and mustard. Mustard is lightly roasted and then hand-pounded, and the rest of the herbs are added to the vegetables and allowed to cook for at least 15-20 minutes, followed by salt and thangyir. Mustard oil is added next. It’s then kept in an earthen pot for at least six to eight weeks to ferment,” she explains.
Consultant Chef & Food Writer , Bengaluru
Ali’s earliest memory of this khatta meetha neembu achaar – sweet and sour lemon pickle – is clumsily packing it in silver foil and tucking it into her lunch box every time her mum made paratha for school lunch. Or, just making it a non-negotiable part of her lunch plate alongside arhar dal and sticky rice on a hot summer afternoon. “In most Lucknow Muslim homes, food is fairly simple, especially for lunch where dal, sabzi, roti, and cut cucumbers on the side would suffice. We are not heavy rice eaters, but this pickle is a must-have with dal-chawal. It is so simple yet flavourful, but most importantly, a classic example of the resourcefulness of home cooking that women bring to the table—probably why it has stuck with me after all these years,” says the chef who is building new conversations around Lucknowi food.
This achar is made with the peels of a lemon instead of whole lemons, jaggery, black salt, and carom seeds. The process is as simple as thoroughly massaging these collected lemon peels with the other ingredients in a big bowl, tightly squeezing them in a sterilised jar, and topping them with the leftover marinade.
Chef, Sienna Cafe, Kolkata
“This is my mother’s ilish-er-tok. It is unlike what a pickle is across a lot of India. Summer meant either this or aam-er-tok. A lot of us in Bengal eat chutney as a course unto itself. Always post the heaviest plate of food: kosha mangsho on a Sunday or, the more appropriate, shorshe ilish. It is sweet-sour, works as a palate cleanser, and is consumed cold,” Kundu informs us.
The pickle epitomises nose-to-tail eating and respects the hilsa. The base has tempered mustard and fennel seeds in mustard oil and fish heads. Tamarind pulp and jaggery are what give it its body.
Kundu’s family has been preparing this for generations and versions of it with whitebait and other smaller fish. “And yet, other cultures get confused when I say it’s a family recipe. As a chef, it becomes essential to spotlight regional food without a filter to prevent homogenisation. We are what we eat, and identity is deeply tied into the idea of reasonable representation of who we are and continue being,” he says.
Find ELLE’s latest issue on stands or download your digital copy here.