Prawn pickle at home. When in school, this would be the singular thought on Josephine Rajaratnam’s mind on days her mother placed that bottle on the dining table. She is 80 years old now, but still remembers how she ran home from school to place a dollop of the pickle on a slice of bread and eat it. “I wouldn’t touch any other snacks; not when there was prawn pickle,” she smiles. Once she was older, Josephine learned her mother’s pickle recipes, as well as her grandmother’s. She made and sold them as Aji’s Pickles, until a few years ago. She says that she closed the business down owing to various issues, among them being the fact that making non-vegetarian pickles involves a “lot of work”. But she still makes them for her son and grandchildren when they come visiting.
In most Indian homes, mango, gooseberry, mixed vegetable, garlic, and lemon pickles are a mainstay. Many of us have a tiny peck of them with curd rice to round off a three-course meal. And also with chapatis and dal rice when there is nothing else worth its while to be had as a side. To sum up, vegetarian pickles, are merely sidekicks.
More than just a sidekick Nothing like a bottle or two of fish, prawn, or mutton pickle made lovingly by a special one, to remind one of home
And then there are some reserved for special occasions — like when a loved one comes home to visit after a long time or when the meat-loving granddaughter packs her bags to leave home for college. Nothing like a bottle or two of fish, prawn, mutton, chicken, or beef pickle made lovingly by the mother, grandmother, uncle or aunt, that will remind them of home. Non-vegetarian pickles are much more than that sad bottle of lemon pickle sitting on the dining table. The meat, soaked in all the masala goodness, becomes nice and firm.
Every person in the backwaters-pampered Kumarakom in Kerala has sampled Lily Joy’s home-made fish, clam, prawn, chicken, and beef pickles. No, she doesn’t sell them; Lily ‘Kutty’, as she is popularly known, happily gives away the pickles to friends and relatives. The 50-year-old has been making them ever since she was 16. “I learnt it from my ammachi,” she says, adding, “The main thing to be kept in mind while making pickles is that there should be no water in them, not even a drop.” Lily first marinates the meat in spices, including turmeric, chilli powder and ginger, and shallow-fries them in coconut oil. “I then cook them with more masalas in sesame oil and add vinegar to keep the freshness intact,” she says.
Recipes for these pickles may vary from home to home, but all of them have a few common ingredients: sesame oil, ginger, garlic, turmeric, and chilli powder. “The process has three steps,” explains 57-year-old Tasneem Ayub, a Chennai-based home cook who runs Ammees Kitchen. She has been making pickles since 1984. “First is the marination, in which the meat or fish, after being washed well, is soaked in a masala mixture. It is then deep-fried. The final step, is cooking this with more masalas.” Tasneem adds that to make fish pickle, “any fish that is firm to touch” can be used. Seer works well, so does king fish or tuna.
Chennai-based sound engineer Abraham Varghese found that he had just ₹500 in his pocket one day. He decided to make small quantities of pickles using it: he made prawn, beef, and bitter gourd and put them up on a Facebook group. “They were sold out in less than two hours,” he says.
That’s when Abraham decided that he had a winning recipe at hand, and plunged into the cooking business. He is the man behind Ammini’s Pickles and the recipe is his mother Achamma’s. The 52-year-old is serious about his pickles. “A pickle is different from a thokku,” he says. “The former should have minimal gravy and should be made with only two types of oil. In the south, it is sesame oil, and in the north, it is mustard.”
His pickles, he says, are good for up to two years, without refrigeration. “I don’t add coriander powder and tomatoes; the garlic and ginger used should ideally be those that have aged, and not fresh.” Abraham prefers Kashmiri chilli powder, that he adds after the cooking is done. “This gives the bright red colour,” he explains. It takes him two days to prepare a batch of 100 kilograms of pickle — he makes fish, squid, green mussels, beef, mutton, and free-range chicken. According to him, “pickle is like wine. It tastes best as it ages.”