‘Prapanchamanta bratukutamo ledo ani tension lo unte, manavaalu prashantanga samvatsaraaniki saripada avakaaya, vadiyaalu pettu kuntunnaru. Nammakam ante ala undaali… (While the whole world is tensed whether we will live or not, our people are peacefully preparing avakaya and vadiyaalu to last the whole year; that’s the way faith should be)
This WhatsApp message from a counsellor friend, with a heart emoji was not only a positive one that lifts the spirits during lockdown; but also equals trust to the process of making what is a staple in Telugu households, avakaya, the pickle with raw mango, mustard powder, salt and red chilli powder and oil for its principal ingredients.
The making of fiery avakaaya and crispy vadiyaalu is a common and celebrated scene across Telugu households. These homemade pickles and fritters are also shared among friends and relatives. This year, the making may have been affected by COVID-19 pandemic, but the process of planning, making and preserving these accompaniments evoke a sense of hope, lots of smiles and memories.
Homemaker Padmaja Rao explains, “Women experience a positive relationship with these foods. Life is unpredictable; we do not know what happens to us the next minute but these foods are prepared with the best intention for the entire family and friends. One never says, ‘I don’t know whether I will live or not after two months, let me make the quantity less.’ This mental state and attitude evoke positivity.”
At Reiki guru Revathi Krishnamurthy’s house in Sainikpuri in Hyderabad, a three-year-old avakaya prepared by Revathi’s (late) mother is a kitchen treasure. She says. “Avakaya brings memories. Whenever we miss her, we eat the avakaya to feel her presence.”
Pointing out a few benefits, Revathi says, “Women are pragmatic by tradition and know the importance of preservation. These two amazing foods are made in summer but preserved to make life easy for the whole year. They have sustained us in this lockdown and in monsoon one need not step out to buy vegetables. There is nothing more heavenly than eating avakaya mixed with hot rice and ghee, along with crispy vadiyaalu for an accompaniment. Even if guests drop in, one can serve a meal in a jiffy.”
Besides keeping the hope and spirits alive, the preparation of the pickle and crispies is a matter of prestige for the woman of the house. No woman is ever seen cribbing or complaining about making vadiyaalu or avakaaya. “That is because a woman never does it alone,” points out chef Kunal Kapur, who narrates pickling stories on his Pickle Nation show on Living Foodz channel. “In older times, women from joint families would get together to make them; amid stories and friendly banter, they would pickle, dry vegetables, ripen fruits, do different things stretched over days. Women would find an excuse to sit around and have long chats; that used to be entertaining.”
Writer Jyothi Valaboju dubs women making avakaya and vadiyaalu as ‘management experts of planning and preparing seasonal food.’ “During this two-month lockdown, I saw women enthusiastically covering their balconies and terraces with plastic sheets and cotton saris to dry their vadiyaalu,” she shares.
As someone who ‘tasted a lot of pickle’, Kunal mentions the one thing that stuck him the most. “Be it north, east, south or west, the process of pickling across religions and communities is considered pretty sacred. Pickle is something important and done hygienically for the older generation women — It is something that you should do.”
Part of many emotional stories featured in the 20+episode television show, he observes, ‘Pickling and emotions run high — sublime and sometimes hilarious.’
One such story featured in the show was on Lagan Nu achaar made in Parsi community. As per a custom, the boy and girl’s side prepare and distribute a dry fruit and carrot pickle among their family members. “If the members find the pickle tasty, it is a sign of approval to go ahead with the wedding but if they don’t, it means approval is not given. I found it amusing that an achaar can decide whether one gets married or not,” recollects Kunal, whose research on pickles continues as he is now writing a book on it.