In the first edition of Indian Home Cooking Week I promised a post on chapatis, parathas and pickles and only provided chapatis and parathas. For this edition I promised a post on pickles and here I am with a post on one pickle. But it’s a good pickle. And with some easy variations it becomes as many as three pickles—so, as you can see, I did not lie a second time. That’s just not the kind of person I am. I have also not always been the kind of person who made pickles. It always seemed a daunting proposition involving greater patience and a lower propensity to screw up and kill people with botulism than I possess. But, as with most forbidding things, it turns out that when you look into it it’s not actually very difficult.
Indian-style pickles, or achaar as they’re known in most of north India, are not about preservation as are most (all?) European and North American pickles. They’re about very slow cooking and making condiments. While no pickle anywhere in fact preserves the thing pickled in its original form (how could it?) Indian pickles don’t even try to: the point is transformation, though without losing the essence of the thing itself. Thus you take sour and bitter limes and turn them sweet and savoury; you take sweet carrots and render them sharp and sour. They’re living things, changing in the jar over time, and for Indians it’s hard to imagine meals without them. All kinds of fruits, vegetables and even meats are pickled all over India, and as a genre it may actually be the one constant over the entire length and breadth of India.
As with most Indian food there are some big differences, by and large, between commercial and home-made pickles. Primary among them are that commercial pickles are, by and large, much oilier than home-made pickles and that commercial pickles are, usually, much saltier than home-made pickles. This, I suspect, is due to the fact that mass-produced pickles have to last much longer. I know, however, that a 8 oz jar of my lime pickle will be consumed in our house in less than two weeks and so I don’t need to worry too much about the three or four 8 oz jars I make at a time staying good past four to six months. And when I make particularly large batches (I’m just about to put 5 lbs of limes away) a bunch of undeserving friends usually benefit. I don’t object to commercial pickles per se but there’s often a kind of sameness to them. And in the case of what is probably my favourite type of pickle—lime—I’ve yet to meet a commercial pickle that could come close to the best home-made ones I’ve had.
Here is my favourite recipe for lime pickle. It is not my recipe. It is taken from a legendary Indian book on pickles, Usha’s Pickle Digest. A mammoth compendium of pickles written and self-published by Usha Prabhakaran—1000 pickles are covered—this book is the holy grail of the Indian home-pickler. Unfortunately, it has never officially been available outside India, was never widely available in India and is now out of print. (Here is an interview with the author.) I got the recipe from a once-popular Indian food forum that I used to co-moderate and my posting it here falls within fair use. And, in any case, I’m only replicating the basic ingredients: the instructions and variations are entirely mine.
- 1 kg/2.2 lbs limes
- 500 gms sugar
- 20 gms chilli powder
- 10 gms hing/asafoetida, powdered
- 10 gms turmeric powder
- 75 gms salt (I use kosher salt)
Preparation (see illustrated guide below)
- Wash the limes and dry them THOROUGHLY.
- Using a THOROUGHLY dry knife on a THOROUGHLY dry cutting board slit the limes crosswise almost to the bottom but do not cut through them completely.
- Combine the salt and turmeric and fill the mixture into the slit limes.
- Place the stuffed limes in a THOROUGHLY dry jar and pour any extra salt/turmeric mixture over.
- Cap the jar tightly and put it away in a corner of your kitchen for at least one month.
- Once a week shake the jar to redistribute the sal-turmeric solution that will begin to develop as the limes give off more and more juice.
- Once a month has passed remove the limes from the jar into a large dry bowl and cut them into very small pieces with a very dry knife or kitchen scissors.
- Pour the salt-turmeric-lime juice mixture into another bowl and add all the remaining ingredients. Mix thoroughly and return the cut limes to the mixture.
- After a thick syrup has formed around the lime pieces portion the pickle into smaller jars (or one large jar, I suppose) to the top, cap tightly and put away for another 10 days.
- Your pickle is now ready. Enjoy on the side with dal and rice/chapatis/parathas.
Without reducing the amount of salt or sugar you can increase or decrease the amount of chilli powder you use and add other ingredients. Here are some of the variations I have made (a couple pictured below).
- Double the chilli powder for an extra hot pickle.
- Roast 1-2 tablespoons of cumin seeds, powder them and add them along with the other ingredients at the second stage for a more savoury pickle.
- Combination of the above.
- I have also made the pickle with no red chilli powder but using habaneros and ghost peppers instead. In these instances I’ve carefully slit and deseeded/deveined the peppers and thrown them in with the stuffed limes in the first stage (the one that lasts a month). I’ve then proceeded with the second step as normal but without red chilli powder as I have no desire to die.
- It is very, very, VERY important that everything you use in the process of making the pickle be completely dry. If not, say hello to mold before your month is up.
- Similarly, always use a dry spoon to serve your pickle and cap the jar tightly right after. While the acid in lime juice is a good preservative there’s no reason to take a chance.
- While the recipe is for one kilogram of limes (or just above two pounds) there’s no reason you can’t scale it down. I’ve never made it with less than one pound though.
- This pickle works best with limes, which have thinner skins, but as the slideshow demonstrates I’ve made it successfully with lemons as well—though avoid lemons with very thick skins (the peels will take much longer to soften). I’ve made it with Meyer lemons as well but didn’t quite like the result—the pickle had a “medicinal” taste that wasn’t my favourite (others liked it though). I’ve also made it with key limes—nice product but it is no fun slitting and stuffing one pound of key limes, let alone two. I will say that regular thin-skinned limes are optimal–ideally, they should be ripened to the point of yellowing (though without the skin toughening).