It is hot, spicy and spunky. One needs guts to merely pop a piece in the mouth. On the other hand the mere thought of adding it to hot warm rice, topped with desi ghee gets one drooling. The glorious mix of ava (mustard) with kaya (raw mango) is a much awaited ceremony in the Telugu households. Avakai from this region is as famous as the Charminar and the backwaters of Godavari. With summer being the season for fresh mango and chilli, And this is just the best time for the pickle jars to be sealed after the raw mango pieces get blended with oil and spices for the right amount of time.
Afternoons get busy, as terraces and homes fill up with the aroma of spices and oil, and women of the house get to work to serve those who prefer homemade pickle to branded ones from the supermarket anyday.
Mahalakshmi has no time to spare. Besides preparing for the year’s stock for her own house, she has to send pickles to her cousins and friends. Why? “Word travels fast. When I gave one bottle to someone, the other came to know and that became one long chain. I enjoy doing it. If my avakai perks up someone’s meal, I will be more than happy,” smiles Mahalakshmi.
Mahalakshmi is off to the US with the bag of goodies for friends and family. “It is like a custom amongst us and I enjoy the entire procedure from pickling to bottling to packaging. We do special packaging at stores so that the pickle doesn’t leak. It is funny but whether you are carrying pickle to USA or to Jammu Kashmir, you have to request the special shops for US packaging,” laughs Mahalakshmi.
Yet in all this pickling, bottling and relishing, there are a few methods and variety of pickles that have gone out of circulation. One of the favourites which is rarely made these days is the kaya avakaya . Ramani Venkat, another pickle enthusiast who almost makes pickles close to 10 kg every year says, “Preparing Kaya avakaya is an elaborate process Every year I, along with my sisters make close to five varieties of traditional pickles. The style and procedure of each have been passed down to us from our mother and grandmother, both experts in the family. I learnt to make pickles when I was 35 years old and I haven’t stopped since then. Before we set out to make pickles we look at dates and tithis . And then me and my sisters go on a mango hunt and within a day or two our pickles are ready to be put in closed jaadi s (ceramic jars).”
But what’s with the tithi ? “It is just a matter of sentiment passed on to us by our mother. Making avakai is an important ritual and it must nt spoil, that’s why,” she explains.
While non-Telugus think pickles of the region are drowning in spice, salt and oil, experts beg to differ. Yellapantula Sunita who considers herself a novice against her more experienced mom and aunt, loves making pickles every summer. “There are some pickles I make only under the supervision of my mom or aunt. Every year my aunt travels from Chennai for a few days to help me make some pickles. She is 84 years and with her age comes the traditions and expertise. I make avakai with bellam (jaggery) and sugar under her supervison and follow her instructions like a rule book. But I need them by my side. It isn’t just about pickles it is about a tradition being passed on and I feel blessed. The exotic variety that rolls out from Sunita’s kitchen is “ Menthikai , Sweet magai variety which are very peculiar to certain parts of Telugu households,” she explains.
Those who are new to avakai , instead of trying the ‘avakai biryani’, follow how the locals relish their avakai annam and experience gastronomic wonders in just a morselful of rice.
Beginners alert: Don’t forget to add the melted ghee to your avakai annam. And keep a glass of water handy, just in case.