“Cleopatra attributed her good looks to a hearty diet of pickles!” There can’t be a healthier recognition for a beauty and nutritional aide. We have heard many tales from history to know pickles influenced people for thousands of years. Julius Caesar fed his troops pickles for physical and spiritual power. As forerunners of this art, the Indian version of the magic has contributed much already and continues to influence people.
Dicsussing some stories heard from my grandmother we entered a stunning house in Chalakudy in Kerala, encircled by a flourishing farm away from pollution and traffic. We met Jithendran, a close ally of Captain Nair of Leela Hotels who hosted us for a week in the guesthouse.
We gathered his fondness for fish, he would trek any where in the world, if you can convince him about a fish dish! The remarkable feature was his passion for pickles, “There’s no end to pickle making, you can prepare from anything and it’s so simple,” he said, standing next to pickle jars and a parrot adept at mimicking humans.
What followed was a journey through time, sampling his ingenious chutneys and pickles, his utterance as flamboyant as the piquancy of the ingredients. As if the mangoes, lemon, carrots and spices were talking to you. With his caring staff led by Pawan, he launched a whole new standard for cooking.
Once it was awful watching Indian restaurants overseas serving sweet mango chutney with poppadoms as entrée. Freshness of chutneys makes an enormous difference in any meal, as precision of spices, salt and oil make our pickles divine for followers of Indian food.
I can recall the season of pickle making in the village, just before monsoon. The house used to be full of mangoes, lemons and gooseberries. It was a harvest celebration. We spent evenings looking at the transformation of green mangoes to bright, chilly red pickles. At night, Amma used to store them next to my room, I would bathe in the aroma of those brewing pickles.
Around the most colourful time for Indian restaurants in UK, we had many people making big money running restaurants and selling ingredients. Among them were some pickle manufactures who filled supermarket shelves as much as professional kitchens with king size bottles!
Chutneys too have tremendous prominence in our tradition. People react emotionally to the power of relishes and dips. Sadly, sometimes chefs don’t apply enough effort in making simple dishes like chutneys.
We completed a long day at Rasa farm with Jithendran, the essence of his ardent stories and home-cooked food lasted longer than we thought. On our way back we dropped by to say goodbye to his lovely staff and we found Jithesh rushing to the kitchen, restlessly searching for something to go with some sesame snack for us to taste!
He came back animatedly. “Try this green papaya pickle, my secret recipe and a surprise flavour for you,” he exclaimed in his classic tone. We were pampered downright and lost for words, we responded with heartfelt emotions and wet eyes as we said farewell to this marvellous Chalakudy mate.
Someone once said, “The King wanted to eat everything all the time, thus started preserving exotic fruits and vegetables.” Another lore was “Poor people wanted to get through poverty during the rains, so they started creating pickles.” As Jithendran commented, today it’s just fun for us to eat pickles with meals.
Ever fancy a pickle tasting holiday? He’s the man and as he says “ feel at home here!”
The author is a London-based restaurateur who owns the Rasa chain