Pickling is a way of preserving vegetables and fruits. Pickling likely first originated in the Indus Valley Civilization in northwest India around 2400 BCE.
The pickles in South Asia are different to pickles in the rest of the world. Mustard, chilli powder and some fenugreek are the most commonly used spices. South Indian pickles do not use any vinegar and the preserving agent was mostly salt and oil – so anaerobic if you want to get scientific.
Growing up in India, we had a distinct “pickling” season. Mostly mangoes were pickled during the height of summer in May. I fondly remember the time when mum shopped around for the best chillies and mustard along with mangoes, the variety being specific for the type of pickle she wished to make. In addition to mangoes, there was lemon, tomato, sour greens, fresh red chillies and gooseberry later in the year to be pickled. The pungent smell of ground mustard and chilli would linger in the air for a few days with the promise of taste tests in the ensuing days.
My lemon pickle recipe is a Westernized version and I like to make it because it adds zing to the blandest food. Believe me, it is most comforting to eat lemon pickle and steamed rice when you are recovering from the flu.
10 large juicy lemons
Juice from 4 lemons
10 tablespoons salt
9 tablespoons chilli powder (I use a combination of very hot and mild Kashmiri chilli powder)
1 heaped dessertspoon full of fenugreek seeds (roasted until brown and ground to a fine powder)
10 cloves of plump garlic
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
4 tablespoons vegetable oil like canola
Cut the 10 lemons into eighths or if smallish into quarters. Take a large jar and place lemons in jar. Add all the salt and shake the jar so the salt is mixed in. Set the jar aside for 24 hours. Squeeze out all the pieces (retain the juice that has collected) and dry the pieces in the sun or I prefer to dehydrate them in the oven at 50 degrees Celsius for about 10 hours or so.
Heat the oil and add the mustard seeds – fry until the seeds are sputtering. Then add the garlic and fry for about 30 seconds. In another large mixing bowl, using a wooden spoon mix the chilli powder and roasted fenugreek powder and add the oil mixture. Add the dried lemon pieces and also the reserved juice (the one from soaking). Mix well and put all the pickle back into the jar.
Allow to rest in a cupboard for a couple of days. Then give it a good mix and squeeze in juice from the four lemons. Will keep for a few months in the back of your cupboard. Serve as accompaniment to an Indian meal.