The parable of food preservation; an Indian carrot pickle

IMG_7128Once upon a time, the dark cold months were months of deprivation. No green shoots appeared in the ground, no fruit swelled on the trees. The young ones went without, or raided the underground cellars for the grains and husks that they shared with their rodents. But the old ones said no, look, here’s what you do. You collect your bounty in the sunlit months; then you preserve it to feast on in the dark months.

“Preserve?” said the young ones, reflecting that perhaps dementia had claimed the old ones. “We have no fridges, nor vacuum packs. Surely, microbes will feast on our bounty before our clumsy hands are able to tear off a single chunk of it to place at the hungry lips of our babes. Surely a week, perhaps two, is how much one can hope to prolong the lives of these frilly delicate vegetables, whose very fronds seem infused with the light of Solis. But all season long? Respectfully, winter is long and harsh.”

“You fools,” said the old ones then, “have we taught you nothing?” They might have cuffed them with an open hand, I’m not sure. Then they drew out jars and jars of fruits and shoots they had taken the trouble to preserve many moons ago. The glass shone with the still preserved colors of the sun’s bounty.

IMG_7143But at first, the young ones shrank from the taste. “Pooh!” they said. “We see that this is imbued with the deep orange of a carrot, but the saltiness scours our tongue. And the mango—did you have to preserve it when green and sour? Could you not have waited for its velvety sweetness to emerge? Ah, we would give our firstborn for the taste of a sweet mango now! That clay jar under the ground—could that be cabbage? But heed the fumes—did a dog die in there?”

“Your trouble,” said the old ones, snatching the kimchee from their hands, “is that your noses are underdeveloped. Look. All of creation loves a good vegetable. You do, and so do the microbes. Food preservation is a race—who shall get to eat the bounty first? The microbes, or the apes known as humans?”

“We are not apes,” the young ones said, with dignity.

“You certainly are,” the old ones returned, “but moving on. Now not all microbes are created alike. Some sicken and extinguish us; others concoct healthful compounds in our foods. Let us call them (because thou hast simple minds, and thy understanding is shallow) the good microbes and the bad microbes. Some of food preservation is nothing but allowing the good microbes to build their colonies in our foods; by their own mysterious devices, the good microbes then form barricades to prevent the bad microbes from entering. Not only that; the guts of these little ones start to break down the foods, thus do our guts get a head start.”

“Shall we then eat microbe-infested foods?” the young ones queried. “Your brains are going soft, perhaps the good microbes have fomented trouble in them.”

“The word is ‘fermented’,” the old ones said, “and you need to understand, your bodies are suffused with microbes at all times. Be not childishly fearful. In fact, in the age of our descendants, fermentation will be thought of with glamour and books and websites shall celebrate the advent of the good microbes in our food, and our partnership with them.”

The old ones then explained how salting the food created a happy place for the good microbes, but instilled fear in the hearts of the bad ones. And how sourness also chased away the bad ones, so one could add to the food an acid-making elixir, such as lemon or vinegar; but if one wanted to be specially tricky, one could have the good microbes produce their own sourness from the depths of their bowels, as they feasted on sugars. Such sourness, the old ones further explained, went by the name of lactic acid, but had little to do with the food of the mammal babes.

IMG_7131“But heed,” the old ones intoned, “while fermentation is hip, do not forget, it is not the only way. Remember, water is needed for all of creation, and all of creation harbors it; the bad microbes desire it with a thirst so deep that it might be a thirst for life itself. What if one were to draw the water out of our foods, and leave it shrunken and dry; the microbes would find it as bare as a moonscape and would not deign to enter. Then: what if one were to cover the whole thing in oil, perhaps an oil such as from the mustard plant, that is practically a warrior against microbes itself, what then?”

What one has, then, is an Indian pickle.

Indian pickles (achar)

It has been a persistent mystery in the minds of some interested parties as to whether Indian pickles are fermented, or not. Among these, I count myself, and also my dear blogger friend Annie Levy from Kitchen Counter Culture. Well, by applying the powers of my mind deeply to the question in a Holmesian sort of way, I think I have my answer. Indian pickles—the typical kind, that are preserved in mustard oil—are not.

Now there are certainly Indian pickles that are fermented, but those are not the norm and the ones that I am familiar with do not use oil at all. But we will talk about those another time.

The typical pickles use a pretty standard method. First, salt the food: salt wants to reach equilibrium, and if the food isn’t salty already, it wants to enter the food from its surroundings. As it enters, it draws out the moisture and takes its place inside the food.

Next, allow the moisture to dry out by placing it in the sun. Once the pieces are much shrunken, jar it up and pour mustard oil over.

IMG_7127This is the basic method I have used with such disparate ingredients as cranberries and sour mango. This time, we have carrots and some green garlic.

The spices tend to be a similar set. Fennel seed is congenial, and so is the use of nigella seed. Turmeric powder has antiseptic properties so that is always used, and the heat comes from red chilies. Usually, the spices are left whole, this time, I chose to pulverize them a bit. They went from looking like this to this:

Of course, a lot of salt is used, and the carrots and green garlic are thoroughly mixed with the spices and salt and laid out on a wide, flat surface. Cover with cheesecloth, place in the sun, and allow the salt and the sun to perform their magic. Watch the slow shriveling of the carrots over the period of a week:

Once the pieces look pretty dry, it is time to mix in some lemon juice, jar it up and pour mustard oil over. Some like to heat the oil to smoking point and then cool it before using, but I don’t see the point because I want the oil to be at peak pungency.

Carrot pickle

  • Servings: 1 pint jar
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Ingredients:

  • About 10 carrots, washed, scraped, and dried completely
  • About 5 full stalks of green garlic, washed, trimmed and dried completely
  • 3 tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 1.5 tablespoons nigella seeds (kalonji)
  • 1.5 tablespoons fenugreek seeds (methi)
  • 2 tablespoons mustard seeds
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt
  • 0.5 tablespoons red chili powder
  • 0.5 tablespoons turmeric
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • About half a cup of mustard oil

Method:

Once the vegetables are completely dry, slice them up in smallish segments, the exact shape does not matter. You could do longish sticks or smallish dice, as I did.

Pulverize the whole spices (fennel, fenugreek, nigella and mustard) slightly using a mortar and pestle. You can skip this step if you like.

Place the vegetables in a wide platter and cover with the pulverized spices, the salt, turmeric and red chili powder. Give it a thorough mixing so all the pieces are evenly covered with the salt and spices.

Cover the platter with cheesecloth and place at a sunny window. My window only gets sun for about an hour in the mornings and that seemed to be enough. Every couple days, give it another mixing with a scrupulously clean spoon.

In about a week the vegetable pieces will look much shriveled, darker and more leathery. Stir in the lemon juice.

Transfer to a scrupulously clean glass jar (you can sterilize it in boiling water first if you like, I didn’t). Pack it down. Pour some of the mustard oil over it and wait for it to settle; pour more. Do this in a few stages, until a thin film of oil shines over the very top of the jar. For me, it took about half a cup. Cover and store in the pantry.

Your pickle (achar) is done. It is great as a side in minuscule portions (since it is highly spiced). It should last for a good long time, even up to a year.


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‘Tis the season for Cranberry Pickle

Cranberry pickle

Cranberry pickle

‘Tis the season for cranberries at all our local markets. ‘Tis also the season for South Asian Indian expats to feel like complete non-entities, because during Thanksgiving all references to ‘Indians’ in America means native Americans. Pilgrims and Indians, Indian corn pudding, Indian harvest feast, and so on.

You guys know that Columbus didn’t really find us, right? While he was knocking around off the coast of America, letters of introduction to Indian emperors in his pocket, we were about to be overrun by the Mughals. Mr. Columbus was nowhere near. Luckily we fared better with the Mughals than the ‘other’ Indians did with Columbus and his descendants.

In any case, ’tis also the season to not be a curmudgeon, and instead, be thankful; and indeed I am thankful for all the bounty of the American continent. Where would we, the Desi Indians be, without the potato, the tomato, the chili…all first harvested here. Can you imagine Indian cuisine without any of those? And corn — without corn, no makki di roti, sarson da saag? Thank you for opening the floodgates to this bounty, Mr. Columbus. For the food. For the feasts. And more importantly, for not finding us.

Cranberries cut in half

Cranberries cut in half

Cranberries

Now here is an American crop that us Indians should take up, given our fondness for sour foods. The European settlers of America learned about cranberries from the tribes that lived around New England. They were used in a number of ways. As fruit; beaten into cakes with meat; the leaves were used for tea; as a natural dye; as a laxative or for treating injuries and fever. However, cranberries really took off among the Europeans only when cheap sweeteners became available, when the sourness of cranberries could be turned into the sweet-tartness of cranberry sauce and be used as a condiment with meat.

Now I love cranberry sauce, and I am about to make some with wine today. But, I think it is a pity that this is the only way they get eaten. Someday perhaps I will try grinding the berries with some meat, the way the native Americans did. And, cranberry leaf tea, anyone?

Cranberry pickle

The sourness of cranberries means that it comes with its own natural preservative, so putting it in a pickle is a no-brainer. I like the sourness so much that I did not add any sugar. I made this pickle in the classic (‘real’) Indian style, with mustard oil. First, cut them in half and mix in salt and leave in a flat layer to dehydrate and ‘cook’. Next, put in a jar with other spices and cover with oil.

Cranberries with salt and red chili

Cranberries with salt and red chili

Tossed with spices

Tossed with spices

After a week, dehydrated

After a week, dehydrated

Add cracked fenugreek seeds

Add cracked fenugreek seeds

In a jar

In a jar

Cranberry pickle

Ingredients:
  • Half a pound of fresh cranberries
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon (or to taste) red chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1 cup or more mustard oil
Method:

Make sure the cranberries are completely dry and cut each in half through the equator. Toss them with the salt and chili powder. Lay them out in a glass or other non-reactive tray in a flattish layer, and cover with cheesecloth. If you get sun part of the day, leave them out in the sun. Each day or two, give them a toss with a clean spoon. Over the days the salt will draw out the moisture and the sun and air will dry it. After three to seven days, they will look dehydrated and shriveled as in the picture above.

Break the fenugreek seeds in a mortar and pestle or in a clean coffee grinder. Mix them in with the cranberries. Empty out the cranberries into a clean non-reactive jar. Pour raw mustard oil over them, shaking once in a while in order to remove bubbles, until the oil comes up to the top. Cover and enjoy.

You do not need to refrigerate this. As for how long it will last, well, a few weeks certainly, but if they go bad I will update this post.


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Sour mango pickle

Image

At last, after years of disappointing attempts, I made a good mango pickle.

I really appreciated that wholesome flavor — I could recognize the taste of the sour mango through the pickling spices, and taste the  sharpness of mustard oil. And the fennel seeds maintained their crunch.

Step 1: Prepare the mangoes. Start with three big unripe mangoes (Kent is fine) that are still green and hard although they may have grown to their full size. I only say this because it may be difficult to obtain the smaller half-grown ones outside of India (or a farm). Inside, the color should either have no flush of orange at all, or a slight peach tint. Wash them, dry them thoroughly (wait a while so they air dry a bit), then cut them up into half-inch side cubes or whatever that shape is. I don’t feel the need to peel but I did remove the seed. If the mangoes are a lot smaller, cutting right through the seed is fine.

Step 2: Collect whole spices.

Image

Combine 1/3 cup fennel seeds, 3 tbsp fenugreek seeds, 2 tbsp black pepper (whole) and 2 tbsp nigella seeds in a mortar and pestle to crack them slightly (no need to pulverize).

Step 3: Combine mango pieces with dry spices.

Image

Lay out the mango pieces in a flat tray. The idea is that we are going to sun-dry them in this format, so keep that in mind. Put in the whole spices. Also add: 1/2 cup sea salt, couple teaspoons (or more) red chili powder, couple teaspoons turmeric. Mix thoroughly with the mango pieces.

Step 4: Sun-dry for a period of 4-6 days.

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So, our mango pieces are coated nicely with the spices. Cover them with a few layers of cheesecloth and put it out in a sunny window. Once a day, open the cloth, give them a stir, spread them out and cover with cheesecloth again.

What is going on with the mango as they sun-dry? You will see them slowly alter: they start to shrivel and turn a little translucent. In fact, they are cooking in slo-mo.

I believe what happens is that the salt draws out the moisture from the mango, and the sun dries them out. In tandem, the sun and the salt are cooking them. When you stir the mango each day, you notice the moisture trapped on the shady side of the pieces, while the top surface — the part that is exposed to the sun — is dry. We turn them to expose all sides to the sun over a period of a few days.

Here is a series of pictures that shows the progression. Day 1 is above.

Day 2:

Mango pickle 2 003

Day 3:

Mango pickle 3 002

Day 4:

Mango pickle 4 002

Day 5:

Mango pickle 5 004

Do you notice how the mango pieces turn more leathery, more translucent, more shriveled over the days? In essence, they start to cook.

Step 5: Cover with oil

The last step is the easiest — empty the mango pieces into a clean, completely dry glass jar. Pour mustard oil over it until it comes at least a half inch above the topmost layer of mango. Shake the jar to settle the contents. Cover, place in a sunny window for another few days, shaking once each day.

Enjoy.