Wednesday, 1 April 2015

In A Pickle Or In A Jam?

Last month my husband came back from India and he got me a gift that was beyond my wildest dreams and expectations. Now why he had gone to India and what he did there, is a tale for another day. In fact it will be the perfect culmination for a post that I have been wanting to write since exactly a year ago and have not got around to yet! No, he did not buy me diamonds, gold jewellery, designer shoes and purses,outrageously expensive perfume or silk sarees. He brought back packets of my favourite red stuffed chilli pickle! I say it was completely unexpected because this particular pickle has been unavailable in my home town for the last four years, though I have fruitlessly (pun intended!) been searching for it every year while in India, in every possible grocery store, big and small.
My relationship with pickle goes back a long way. Pickles of various types and in myriad flavours and hues were and still are a 'must' in every Indian home. My grandmother used to have a whole array of shiny glass jars lining her kitchen cupboard, tightly covered with spotless white bonnets. Come summer the whole process of pickle making would begin with  mangoes, limes, chillies, sugar for the sweet variety, oil, and various spices. No ready made pickle spice powder for her! She made every thing from scratch and the comforting aroma of those spices in hot oil is as fresh in my mind today as it was in my olfactory glands then...I always craved a bonnet for one of my dolls. It seemed just the perfect size but she always refused, as she had the exact number of self stitched bonnets that she had glass jars! And those bonnets were an important part of storing the pickles for the entire year as they rendered the jars virtually air tight because her pickles, unlike store bought ones, were without even an ounce of chemical preservatives in them. Now I wonder why I just did not ask her to stitch an extra one for my doll. I know she would have happily obliged me. But I guess the fun lay in the begging and the haggling and the subsequent denial!
I had even christened each type of my grand mother's pickles, so great was my love for them. She was very amused and fascinated by the names, as they gave the pickles their own personality and she had never found a greater connoisseur of her art than me, though she had been making them for decades before I was born! Some of the names that come to mind were the following ones and I have translated them from my mother tongue Marathi. Spicy Lime, Sweet Lime, Sweet and Sour Lime, Medicinal Lime, Lime and Chilly, Only Chilli, Tamarind and Chilli, Spicy Mango, Sweet Crushed Mango, Crushed Chilli, Chilli and Mango ...well you get the idea. If she was creative in her pickle making, I was equally creative in giving them names which was very useful when we had guests. I used to rattle off the names and they could take their pick without popping, horror of horrors, a piece of the wrong kind into their mouths!
The best part of a freshly made mango pickle was that it saved my sister and me the trouble of chopping raw mangoes for our personal consumption in the summer holidays. We used to just dip a spoon into the pickle jar, scoop out a raw slice of mango and crunch it down to the accompaniment of whichever book we were reading then! As a result the Spicy Mango pickle jar always looked depleted for the rest of the year, compared to its other counter parts that lined the wooden shelf !
My parents were pickle makers of the vegetable kind. They loved making mixed vegetable pickles with cauliflowers, carrots, lemon, mango chillies, all chopped and chucked together into a huge earthern ware pot, floating in mustard oil, tempered with coarsely ground spices and salt. A couple of these jars roamed the length and breadth of India with us and I am surprised they lasted as long as they did! Well, I shouldn't be actually, things were still made in India then!
There was a special procedure for removing the pickle from these cavernous jars. A sparkling clean steel ladle had to be heated till it was red hot and then this was lowered into the jar and a mound of pickle was carefully scooped out into a smaller glass jar. No preservatives equals extra care!
My love affair with the Red Stuffed Chilli pickle began when my Dad was posted to the city of  Jallundhar in Punjab. This is a typical North Indian pickle so I had never tasted it till I was thirteen but then I was hooked for life and it became my only vice ! Well, fine. I know choclates, ice cream and potato wafers count as vices too but that's the sum total of my vices! Red hot, plump,smooth and shiny chillies, stuffed with aromatic and flavourful spices like cumin, fennel, coriander and mustard seeds, turmeric and dried mango powder for that tanginess, all shimmering in a bed of slightly pungent mustard oil. Wow!
Even when I got married and moved to Russia a large part of my suitcase would be stuffed with cans of Red Stuffed Chilli pickle that my brother in law would procure specially for me from our capital city New Delhi. Oh yes, my inlaws certainly indulged this love of mine, with my father in law and his brother lugging large packets of this pickle for me every time they visited each other. It was available in their home town but sadly not in mine. My Russian house help caught this spicy bug too and whenever I was leaving for India, she would ask me to buy her some of this pickle! I am solely responsible for corrupting a pair of Bolshevik taste buds!
When I was expecting my daughter, I began eating really heartily and found a good excuse to satisfy this permanent craving of mine. It still wasn't available in my home town so my husband and a friend of his scoured on foot a Sikh part of our town, asking in each and every shop if this pickle was available or if anyone had any at home that they were willing to sell. He would pay top price! Sadly none was to be found  as these chillies ripen only at a certain time of the year in India, unlike in Africa, where we get them all year long. But I appreciated the effort and yes, my daughter turned out to be a huge fan too, though I never had any during those nine months. Some vices are genetic!
I was surprised and thrilled when a well known local pickle manufacturer in Pune began making this pickle and launched a simply great version of it. I bought as much as I could whenever I could lay my hands on it. Also it began lasting longer, as I changed the pickle eating rules in our house when our children were born. It was restricted to just once a week due to the high salt content and of course the preservatives found in factory made pickles. The sacrifices that parents have to make!
Sadly that supply petered out soon as maybe not too many people in my home town really liked this pickle and so I began making my own. It looks like I inherited my grand mother's pickle making genes as all my attempts produced fantastic results from online recipes!  A couple of small bottles twice a year were enough to keep me sated and I came to terms with the fact that I would have to share with not just one but both the kids as my son turned out to be an equally big fan. My husband prefers mango pickle. Yes, one contender less!
And so I was over the moon when my husband handed me not one or two but FIVE packets of the Red Stuffed Chilli pickle. The pickle manufaturer in Pune had reintroduced this type of pickle and there had been a special promotion just when my husband was in India.
Troubles come to all of us in life sooner or later. That is life! Idiomatically 'To be in a pickle' and 'To be in a jam' mean exactly the same thing! Well I know where I'd rather be - In a huge vat of Red Stuffed Chilli pickle, where else!

                                                            The best gift ever...
                                          My grandmother's bonneted pickle jars were like this one.
                                                I made my own Red Stuffed Chilli Pickle.
                              The jars that travelled with us looked exactly like these ones.

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