This is the fourth installment of The Spice, a monthly series taking an elemental approach to Indian cuisine, a deep-dive into the flavors and ingredients powering the dishes we love.
Is an Indian household really complete without a trusty jar of pickle on hand? (Or perhaps, several jars?) Even accounting for regional differences, the strength of Indian cuisine is the way flavors are tempered and layered to produce maximum complexity, and nothing does that quite like pickle. It’s hard to come up with a proper comparison — achaar has more spice and texture than your average Sriracha sauce and it’s typically a little sweeter than kimchi.
For the fourth installment of The Spice, The Indian Scene’s guide to the staples of Indian cuisine, we decided to explore this singular condiment, which goes well with just about anything, from rice to dal to yogurt. (For a pairing suggestion, look no further than our food writer Kitty Prasad, who has a recipe for missi roti in this month’s issue of The Indian Scene that she says is best served with yogurt and pickle).
Whoever said variety is the spice of life might have been well-acquainted with achaar. It’s a condiment, sure, but there are countless ways to prepare pickle and a dizzying number of varieties. Author Usha Prabhakaran managed to wrangle up exactly a thousand(!) recipes for the condiment, which she published in her book “Usha’s Pickle Digest.” The book contains recipes the typical varieties of the staple — your run-of-the-mill mango-ginger and lime — but also everything from gooseberry pickle to a version with lotus stem.
“India is blessed with cheap and plentiful availability of a staggering variety of vegetables, fruits, spices and oils,” she said in one interview. “It is no wonder then that pickling has always been popular in India. India being a hot country, hot spicy foods such as pickles which perk up any meal and whose diversity is well recognized are key features of Indian cuisine.”
Prabhakaran wrote her book as a tribute to the women in Indian households who had spent generations perfecting signature pickle recipes. In her conversations with home chefs, she was surprised to discover how fastidious they were. The perfect pickle, they told her, required expertly picked vegetables, jars dried in the sun, and only home-ground spices. Those were the small details that distinguished their pickle from store-bought varieties loaded with oils and excessive salt.
In 2016, frustrated with the preservative-heavy pickle available for sale in the U.S., Brooklyn-based chef and author Chitra Agarwal launched Brooklyn Delhi, a small-batch achaar company that offers new, unique flavors, like a bright and slightly sweet rhubarb ginger variety that she recommends trying with soba noodles or in a veggie sandwich. It’s not quite homemade — you can find it at select Whole Foods stores — but it comes pretty close.