A brief history of pickling

A jar of pickle (Aavakaaya for Telugu speaking folk, “achaar” for Hindi speaking folk) is the essence of home. The whiff of freshly made pickles instantly transports us to our childhood home and we can’t wait to dig into the medley of flavours. But few of us ever stop to wonder about the origins of pickling or preservation. The food historian Jan Davison in her book “Pickles: A Global History” believes that the first reference to pickled vegetables appears in a Chinese manuscript about 9000 years old. According to the pickle history timeline on the New York Food Museum’s website, cucumbers imported from their native India were pickled in vinegar by Mesopotamians as far back as 2400 BC. Expert historians believe that pickling is as old as cultivation itself. 

Whenever there was a glut of produce - fruit, vegetable or meat - people resorted to pickling as a  way of preservation so that they could eat that produce during the lean months. Different geographies developed myriad and distinctive techniques for preserving the foods they value. People of the Indian subcontinent - India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh use condiments and sesame oil or mustard oil as the main preservatives. The quintessential Indian Mango Pickle has been popularized all over the world for its unique flavor profile. East Asian and European countries use salt and vinegar as the media for preservation - the world famous Kimchi from Korea and Saurkraut from Germany are glowing examples. The techniques of preservation, though locally developed, have transcended time and geographical boundaries. The modern escabeche of Latin America has its origins in medieval Middle Eastern recipes while the British chutneys are an import from the colonization of India. A common thread weaves through the saga of pickling  - it is a story of the human quest not just to preserve food but also to add flavour and relish to it. 

Pickles are mentioned in various texts from ancient and medieval India, as well as in the accounts of travellers to the region. According to historian Jyotsna K Kamat’s Social Life in Medieval Karnataka (1980), the 14th century Kannada treatise, Nala Champu, mentions “pickles of green and raw bilva (bellavatta) or be//wood apple, green mango, green pepper, raw ginger, raw cardamom and myrobalan were in vogue”. Ibn Batuta, who had observed the popularity of pickles throughout India, explains the method of its preservation. 

In Indian Food: A Historical Companion (1994), food historian KT Achaya writes, “Nemichandra, in his Lilavati of about AD 1170, mentions serving to the king, Nilapati, on a lotus leaf, a large number of pickles, made from fruits, vegetables and roots, all flavoured with camphor.” Achaya also notes that the Lingapurana by Gurulinga Desika (AD 1594), from what is now modern-day Karnataka, mentions 50 kinds of pickles. As per Achaya, the Gujarati text Varanaka-Samuchaya (AD 1520) describes pickles including “…the distinctive athanu, goondas and chundo, with its sweet-sour flavour, tempered with cardamom and cloves.” 

In her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (2005), Lizzie Collingham mentions European travellers to 17th century India mesmerized by the mind boggling variety of  pickles and chutneys that Indians consumed. She writes “Pietro della Valle, who had so much trouble finding anything to eat while travelling in India, equipped himself for his journey with ‘many Vessels of conserves of the Pulp of young Indian cane, or Bambu (which is very good to eat after this manner) and of green Pepper, Cucumbers and other Fruits, wont to be pickled by them’,”. She also adds that European sailors packed jars of Indian achars on their voyages, a practice that “must have greatly improved their diet of dry, and usually wormy, biscuits and hard salt meat.” 

Collingham opines that, as the British established dominion over India, cooks back in Old Blighty eagerly adopted the skills of Indian pickling and making chutneys. She writes, “Indians very rarely used vinegar, and their pickles were made by layering vegetables or fruits in jars with oil or water. The mixture was flavoured with salt and spices and the jars were set in the hot sun where they were left to ferment. Lacking the intense heat of the Indian sun, British cooks resorted to vinegar to carry out the pickling process. Unable to lay their hands on mangoes or bamboo shoots, they tried out various substitutes such as marrows, apples or tomatoes for mangoes and elder shoots for bamboo.” Particularly popular, she writes, was what came to be known as piccalilli. “The bright yellow mixture of cauliflower, onions and mustard…almost certainly evolved out of these recipes. While curries made few inroads into British working-class households, jars of pickle became standard in all British pantries…” 

Those of us who, away from our parents/grandparents, have often experienced the thrill of drizzling ”Aavakaaya/Achaar” over a plate of steaming hot idlis or tempered curd rice, would agree that this process of preservation has become an art form. If staples like rice, wheat etc make the body of the meal, vegetables/dal/curd etc form the heart of the meal; but pickles form the “Soul” of the Indian meal. This is because they complete the shadrasa (six tastes — sweet, sour, pungent, astringent, bitter and salty) requirement as prescribed by ayurvedic texts.

What began, principally, as a vital means of preservation by happenstance also delivers assertive flavours. Pickles hit the spot when it comes to our desire for foods that both excite and satisfy. Through the centuries pickles have proved a welcome addition to bland, starch-rich staple diets wanting in flavour. In many cultures fresh pickles have been created specifically to enliven the daily meal.