The Art, Craft and (Gendered) Labour of Achaar
Updated: Aug 17, 2022
In the essay Cooking Women, novelist Anuradha Roy recalls her widowed aunt spending many a winter afternoon making a pickle out of jujube, a wild plum known as kul in Bengal:
“The pickle was a gooey mixture of mustard, molasses, a five-spice mixture, asafoetida and chilli. It would mature gently taking in the lemony colour and warmth of the winter sun until it was just right.”
Roy remembers these “pickle-scented afternoons” as “the domain of women and children” — a place where the fruits of her aunt’s quiet, patient labour met the eager tastebuds of Roy’s younger self. When I read these words, I’m transported back to similar childhood afternoons when I would sneak bite-sized pieces of kul, raw mango, tamarind or lime out of tall, wide-mouthed, tightly-sealed pickle jars while keeping an ear open for the sound of approaching footsteps.
If the redolent kul pickle Roy describes was the handiwork of her aunt, the contents of the family pickle jars I greedily raided were a repository of my grandmother’s generational knowledge and practised hands.
During the summer months, the same raw mango would enter her kitchen only to re-emerge days, weeks or months later as five different varieties of pickles: one gently spiced and sweetened with jaggery, another tart and salty, yet another flavoured by the unmistakable pungency of mustard, one generously doused in mustard oil, and another with barely any hint of oil. Each was put together with a skill and intuition that cannot quite be captured in a recipe book. As it happens, over time, age would put an end to these exertions, and the sweet, sour, salty and spicy goodness that emerged by turns from my grandmother’s pickle jars would be replaced by the standard issue spicy oiliness of the store-bought variety.
Eaten as relishes, condiments and appetisers, pickles can carry an air of indulgence. But through most of history, pickling was a necessity, a way to prevent food from rotting. Before the invention of refrigeration, pickling — like smoking, drying, salting and fermenting — would make fresh seasonal produce last longer and preserve it for a lean period. Over time, these became flavourful additions to starch-rich staple diets.
Barring some common ground rules, the knowledge of pickling techniques and processes is a self-contained family affair in India, passed down from one generation of women to the next. Recipes are seldom written down, but rather, imbibed by loitering, listening, watching and helping out.
For my mother and aunts, the first generation of women in the family to work outside the home, the kitchen was a space of functional labour, unequipped to make space for the time-consuming and labour-intensive work of making pickles. For me, that meant that the network of accumulated knowledge needed to develop the craft was effectively severed with my grandmother’s eventual passing. And so, as I prepared to write this, I turned to others who have made it their life’s work to prevent the loss — the ‘rot’ if you will — of these knowledge networks and the underlying culinary art.
Culinary chronicler and consultant Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal was initiated into this network through watching her grandmother, mother and aunts prep and pickle mangoes on the terrace of their Bombay home on hot summer afternoons. As Munshaw-Ghildiyal and her cousins — mostly the girls, she specifies — grew up, they were actively included in this process.
Since 2017 Munshaw-Ghildiyal has hosted an Achaar Day every year, inviting pickle enthusiasts across India to recreate and share lesser-known recipes. Her love for pickle variety stems from her grandmother’s reputation as “star-pickler”– at the height of her productivity she would churn out ninety pickles a year– but Achaar Day is also the first step towards sharing this knowledge network with the next generation. Though the group of invitees is largely limited to her peers, this is also where Munshaw-Ghildiyal’s teenage daughter learnt to make her first pickle. “She accompanied me at the last  event and asked to stay behind and observe the rest of us. The next day, while I was away, she collected a few leftover raw mangoes and turned them into a simple savoury pickle with our cook’s help,” she recalls.
The nostalgia at the heart of Munshaw-Ghildiyal’s documentation efforts also drives contemporary business owners like Pallavi Chaturvedi and Christina Kinny.
In 2014, Chaturvedi was nudged into launching her homemade pickle brand, evocatively named Courtyard Memories through memories of the courtyard of her childhood Lucknow home. There she watched her mother and grandmother churn out jars of mango, lime or chilli pickles at different times of the year. Her unique ginger and turmeric pickles are distilled from the recipes of the older women in her family. She has also taken it upon herself to document the culinary wisdom of the generation of 75-80 year olds who she sees as “the last custodians of these traditions”. The team of women employed by Courtyard Memories replicate the intricate processes of prepping the soft, raw and tender ginger and the slow cooking of lime, meanwhile preserving the knowledge and existence of this pickle.
Kinny, who runs the food venture East Indian Cozinha in Mumbai endeavours to preserve the kolim balchao, a pickle made from shrimp seedlings, chilies and a variety of spices. Kinny now counts kolim balchao among her specialties and the recipe is wrapped in vivid memories of her grandmother collecting shrimp seedlings from nearby creeks in the folds of her saree, to later pickle.
Both Kinny and Munshaw-Ghildiyal view their work, as chroniclers and practitioners of pickle making, as a way to collectively stave off the rot of this culinary art and preserve its knowledge. While the pickling knowledge of yore was shared as a generational right of passage, today’s pickle chroniclers are looking to make the information more readily accessible.
Retired lawyer Usha R Prabakaran took on the task of self-publishing Usha’s Pickle Digest which catalogues over a thousand different recipes from cuisines across the country. Inside are detailed instructions on how to buy, store, and prep pickling ingredients, how to retain their nutritional value, and how to effectively incorporate a microwave into the pickling process. Prabakaran’s efforts have earned her the description of “India’s pickle queen” from The New York Times food critic Tejal Rao but even her encyclopaedic endeavour captures only a slice of India’s pickle variety.
In India, pickles, known as achaar in most (but not all) local languages, have historically been tied to the local climate, precisely because the technique preceded the availability of refrigeration. Add to this the variations arising from topography, historical food influences, and individual and community preferences, and we end up with a wide array of Indian achaars that are unique to specific regions. Cataloguing the variety of pickling traditions in India is a behemoth task.
Despite their diversity, however, pickling methods across the country have one thing in common: they’ve evolved to counter the high heat and humidity that typify most of South Asia's climate and make food especially prone to rotting. Indian pickle recipes harness the preservative capacities of a whole host of ingredients such as salt, sugar or jaggery, ground and whole spices, and acidic foods such as lime, lemon, tamarind and buttermilk to reduce the rate at which food spoils. The regionality of these methods demonstrates how the science of pickling is only a small part of the knowledge required to become a ‘star pickler’ like Munshaw-Ghildiyal’s grandmother.
The most globally-recognised fermentation aid is salt. It not only gives pickles their characteristic flavour, but also sets in motion the process of lactic acid fermentation, or lacto-fermentation. Salt draws the water out of any ingredient it is put in contact with and thereby creates a selective environment for lactic acid bacteria to thrive. These are several species of bacteria classed under the taxonomic order Lactobacillales that are naturally present in all fruits and vegetables. Activated by moisture, this ‘good’ bacteria converts food sugars into lactic acid. The resulting acidic environment inhibits the growth of other ‘bad’ bacteria that may decompose or spoil food. But even in this relatively straightforward style of pickling, there are a multitude of varieties driven by science, taste and tradition.
Food and nutrition consultant and lacto-fermentation educator Sangeeta Khanna claims a 3-5 percent salt brine is ideal for the growth of lactic acid bacteria. The bacteria are relatively salt-tolerant so an impatient pickler might employ a higher quantity of salt to speed up the process of lacto-fermentation. Their haste would result in something pickled, but according to Chaturvedi of Courtyard Memories, this would make the consistency of the pickle all wrong: “By adjusting the quantity of salt, you are essentially balancing fermentation and preservation, and balance is what separates a good pickle from a bad one.”
Many salt-fermented pickles may also use mustard as an additional fermentation agent. “Vegetables and fruits will ferment if kept in brine, but the addition of mustard, aside from lending great flavours, hastens lacto-fermentation,” Khanna says. She recommends mustard pickling as a way to utilise overripe white radish (mooli) that is too tough to be eaten raw or cooked. Khanna ‘rediscovered’ this pickle, so to speak, when a batch of white radish in the vegetable garden of her Dehradun home grew too mature. “I was thinking of discarding them when the mali (gardener) told me to pickle them instead. I was instantly reminded of my grandmother’s mooli ka achar,” she says, pointing to yet another instance of how knowledge of pickle making circulates. Eaten as a salad, this pickle is comparable to kimchi and sauerkraut in pungency and probiotic value, she adds. Another popular lacto-fermented mustard-activated pickle is the gajar-gobi-shalgam (carrot-cauliflower-turnip) achaar of north India that is made in winter using these seasonal vegetables and has a relatively shorter shelf life of three to four months.
Lactic acid fermentation is the basic technique behind most Asian and European pickles such as kimchi, umeboshi, sauerkraut and nimbu ka achaar (pickled lime). Lacto-fermented pickles are typically classified as brine or water-based and last anywhere between a few months to a year or more. Those with a relatively long shelf life usually have small quantities of oil added to them. Still, there are variations on this practice. One such variation can be found with vadu manga pickle in South India. Typically this is made with the smallest and most tender baby mangoes which are first fermented and then dipped in sesame oil and consumed all through the year, but some recipes omit the oil altogether.
Other types of lacto-fermented pickles use buttermilk or curd as the fermenting agent. For buttermilk chillies, a delicacy in the state of Maharashtra and across south India, chillies are soaked in salt and buttermilk (some versions use curd) and set to dry in the sun only to be brought back in the evening for another round of soaking. After four to five such outings, the chillies dry to a crisp and can be stored till the next summer. As products of lacto-fermentation, both buttermilk and curd are acidic, and once salt and (in some recipes) mustard are added, they become preservatives, explains Prabakaran’s tome of pickle knowledge.
While salt is commonly used, there are some regions where vegetables are fermented without salt. In the foothills of the Himalayas in India, radish taproot and leafy greens are fermented in this manner, known as sinki and gundruk, respectively. For bamboo shoot pickle, which is unique to the country’s northeastern states, tender bamboo shoots are typically fermented without salt, says Gitika Saikia who runs a home kitchen Gitikas Pakghor specialising in cuisine from the northeastern state of Assam. Salt, along with mustard oil and spices, is added after the shoots have fermented and turned slightly sour. In northeastern parts of India and the foothills of the Himalayas which have historically been marginalised and resource-deprived areas, something as seemingly commonplace as salt was not always easily available. This might explain the prevalence of salt-free fermentation techniques in these regions, shares Saikia. And since fermentation techniques are often region- and family-specific, she has adopted her mother’s practice of adding salt at a later stage.
Besides this wide gamut of water-based pickles that only use little or no oil, there are a host of oil-based pickles that are typical of South Asia. These pickles come submerged in a layer of oil, usually mustard in the north and sesame in the southern part of India. Like salt, sugar and spices, oil, too, acts as a natural preservative. It seals off air and reduces the amount of oxygen that comes into contact with the pickled fruits and vegetables, thus inhibiting fungal and microbial growth, Prabakaran explains. She claims: “Oil also helps the pickling ingredient absorb the flavour of spices, herbs and other seasonings, which makes it tastier.”
To the categories of brine/water- and oil-based pickles can be added a third group of instant pickles which serve to harness the “achari” (pickled) flavours of food, rather than to preserve it. These last about a week at best, Munshaw-Ghildiyal says. Prabakaran puts vinegar-based pickles into a separate category, but as Saikia and Chaturvedi point out, vinegar was historically not used in Indian pickles, and is a more recent addition.
The exceptions are meat- and fish-based pickles which use vinegar generously to both clean and preserve produce. This category of pickles also typically involves fire/stove-top cooking, which is less common in plant-based pickles. For prawn/bombay duck balchao, a kind of pickle that is unique to the East Indian community of Maharashtra, prawns (or bombay duck) are cleaned, fried, and mixed with chopped and sundried ginger, garlic and red chillies as well as vinegar, explains Kinny whose memories of her grandmother’s saree replete with shrimp seedlings has resulted in her business being known for this style of pickle.
Fire has to be used more indirectly in the preparation of kolim balchao because this East Indian pickling specialty uses shrimp seedlings, known as kolim, that very delicate. The kolim is first sundried and mixed with spices and vinegar and finally covered with oil that has been preheated and cooled to room temperature. Unless saltwater fish/seedlings are used, fish- and meat-based pickles are salt cured to prevent rotting, Kinny adds.
Some Indian pickle traditions capitalise on the region’s sunny days as part of a ‘cooking’ process. The heat of the sun destroys microbes and prevents surface moulds, but more importantly, it ‘cooks’ the pickle either by absorbing the moisture from fruits and vegetables before they are pickled, or by providing the necessary warmth for lactic acid bacteria to thrive during the pickling process, or both. Many contemporary pickling guides warn against placing ferments in direct sunlight as high temperatures might kill off ‘good’ bacterias, but proper utilisation of the practice can yield interesting results and showcases how much regionality plays into India’s pickling traditions.
A good example of such “sun cooking” — a process food historian KT Achaya calls “cooking without fire” — is a sweet mango pickle from the Gujarat province known as chunda. For this pickle, grated mango is mixed with sugar and a few spices then left under the sun every morning and brought back in the evening. This cycle is repeated for ten to fifteen days. Over time, the sun literally cooks the mango and the sugar together, giving it a jammy consistency. Of course, this specific method of sun cooking is only possible in the hotter and drier parts of the country, what is a common practice in hot and arid Gujarat is unlikely to work in the humid northeast.
The process of preserving the knowledge networks of India’s pickling traditions can be quite poetic when you consider the role fermentation has in preventing the rot of fresh ingredients. In On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Harold McGee describes fermentation as “controlled spoilage” that allows “certain microbes and their enzymes to decompose the original food, but not beyond the point of edibility”. Krish Ashok, the author of Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking, similarly describes fermentation as “strategic rotting”. Sandor Katz takes this argument a step further when he writes in The Art of Fermentation, “Between fresh and rotten, there is a creative space in which some of the most compelling of flavours arise. Because the existence of such a creative space is so ubiquitous across cultures, there is no sharp, objective distinction between foods that are fermented and foods that are rotten.”
However, Khanna, drawing on her expertise in lacto-fermentation, cautions against such easy association of fermentation and rotting, arguing that the two are very different processes that involve different microbes and lead to different products: “Rotting is something that breaks down the plant or animal tissue and mixes it with the soil. Fermentation doesn’t break down the tissue instantly. It is a longer and more complicated process.” She adds that the process also changes the texture and taste of food and helps to create some postbiotics which are good for health. Elsewhere in The Art of Fermentation, Katz himself makes this distinction. A head of cabbage left for long enough at ambient temperature will develop moulds on its surfaces and, over time, turn into “a puddle of slime bearing no resemblance whatsoever to crunchy, tangy, delicious sauerkraut [...] The environmental manipulation that yields kraut rather than a puddle of slime is to submerge the cabbage under liquid and thereby deprive it of air and oxygen,” he explains, in effect outlining the difference between fermentation and rot.
This environmental manipulation of fresh produce, aided by the preservative qualities of a host of ingredients and the knowledge of techniques passed down across generations, is at the core of Indian pickling. The outcome is a quintessentially artisanal food that also falls squarely within the slow food tradition eulogised by contemporary food cultures. The small-scale artisanal pickle brands that have emerged in India over the past decade — Kinny’s East Indian Cozinha and Chaturvedi’s Courtyard Memories would fall squarely under this category — draw heavily from family heirloom recipes and see themselves as part of an attempt to keep this tradition alive. Sustaining this culinary practice is also what motivates Prabakaran, Munshaw-Ghildiyal and Khanna to document and share their knowledge of fermentation and preservation techniques, and Saikia to popularise the bamboo shoot or bhut jolokia pickles that are unique to her inherited food traditions.
The testimonies of these women — about their own pickle memories, and the older women to whom they owe their knowledge and craft — are proof that it is impossible to talk about pickles in a way that is delinked from nostalgia. This nostalgia drives their work as pickling chroniclers and practitioners intent on guarding this culinary tradition against a hastening rot. Like these food entrepreneurs, home chefs and all-round pickle enthusiasts, the taste of sweet mango pickle is, for me, inextricable from the memory of my grandmother’s pickle jars sunning on the terrace of our Kolkata home. Indeed, for many of us, food offers not only a sense of security and a permanency of happiness in the present, it is also a way to revisit our past.
Yet, there is another truth that often remains unacknowledged or suppressed by our cumulative culinary nostalgia. Food and the labour that goes into producing it are always already gendered. Our culinary practices — and pickling is just one of them — rest on the backs of the invisibilised labour of generations of women who collected fish seedlings from a creek that they would then spend the day pickling, who spent hours chopping and grating on the terrace on hot summer afternoons, who churned out ninety pickles a year over and above the work running a household and feeding big extended families. Without their unpaid (and in more commercial settings, underpaid) labour, the so-called food heritage championed by contemporary food cultures would not survive.
For business owners like Kinny and Chaturvedi, pickling has become a matter of livelihood so they are acutely aware of the extent of labour required to keep this culinary practice alive. Acknowledgement of this labour is crucial if we are to prevent the rot of these knowledge networks. Romantic notions of homemade pickles have the effect of erasing labour that have traditionally been performed by women as a matter of survival for the communities they belonged to.
This is precisely why a straightforward celebration of artisanal slow food traditions, including the resurgence of small-scale homemade heirloom pickle brands in India, calls for some introspection. We may have started documenting the culinary wisdom and resourcefulness of the women who gave us our earliest taste of pickles, but we are a long way off from questioning whether their labour was indeed born of love or simply the burden of tradition.
Jan Davidson, Pickles: A History, Reaktion Books: London, 2018.
K.T. Achaya, Indian Food: A Historical Companion, Oxford University Press: New Delhi, 1994.
Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, 1984.
Sandor Ellix Katz, The Art of Fermentation, Chelsea Green Publishing: Vermont, 2012.
Sohel Sarkar is an independent journalist, editor, and feminist researcher currently based in Bengaluru, India. Her work has appeared in Whetstone Magazine, Eaten Magazine, Goya Journal and Sliced, among others. You can find her on Twitter as @SohelS28 and on Instagram as @sarkar.sohel10.