Nostalgia | Avakaya and a Telugu summer love story

With May comes mangoes in plenty and a beloved summer tradition. This year’s controversy about adulterated spice powders also encouraged many to go back to the old ways of pickling

Updated - June 01, 2024 04:36 pm IST

Published - May 25, 2024 05:58 pm IST

Raw mangoes being cut into even-sized pieces to make avakaya

Raw mangoes being cut into even-sized pieces to make avakaya

It’s pickling season in the Telugu states, and while Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are known for quite a few varieties, the avakaya is king. The fiery raw mango pickle made with dry Guntur chillies is stored in ceramic jars for consumption all year round.

But this year, the start of the season coincided with the news of adulterated spice powders. Amidst countries imposing bans and restrictions on the import of Indian masalas, it impacted the summer tradition of avakaya making. Especially because, over the past few decades, most urban households have moved away from homemade spice powders to relying on store-bought ones.

Raw mangoes for sale in Hyderabad

Raw mangoes for sale in Hyderabad | Photo Credit: Aruna Chandaraju

On the bright side, the news did get many families to call up their elders who still make the pickle the traditional way. It is the method that many of us grew up watching and enjoying as children. Even today, it remains the biggest food-related event of the year in the region — with Telugu households making large volumes of various types of mango pickles: Magai (with sundried mango), Thurumu Magai (grated mango pickle), Bellam Avakaya (a sweet, jaggery-infused version), Pachcha avakaya (a yellow-tinged version made with the more expensive Gollaprolu chillies).

Pachcha avakaya

Pachcha avakaya | Photo Credit: Yashodha Polapragada

When green becomes red

In my family, it was one of the most awaited annual rituals every April and May, when everyone descended on our maternal grandparents’ home, in the heart of the picturesque Godavari delta area in Andhra.

My grandfather would order home sacks of freshly harvested raw mangoes such as the sour kothapalli kobbari and pedda rasalu. The taut green fruits would be washed, wiped dry or briefly sundried, and cut into even-sized pieces by skilled workers who were available in plenty during this season back in the 60s and 70s. The pieces would then be placed in large vats or vessels, and cold-pressed sesame oil — so fresh you could see the foam on top — would be mixed in, along with home-pounded Guntur red chilli powder, salt and mustard powder. Like most great cooks, my grandmother never bothered with exact measures and, instead, worked by instinct. After a thorough mixing, the pickle would be transferred into large ceramic jars and their lids secured with white muslin cloth. It would last a year or two.

A woman cutting raw mangoes

A woman cutting raw mangoes

Mangoes mixed with Guntur red chilli powder, salt and mustard powder

Mangoes mixed with Guntur red chilli powder, salt and mustard powder | Photo Credit: Kalyani Gollamudi

Freshly prepared avakaya

Freshly prepared avakaya | Photo Credit: Yashodha Polapragada

Avakaya stored in ceramic jars

Avakaya stored in ceramic jars | Photo Credit: Yashodha Polapragada

The tradition continues

But it can also be eaten a few days after preparation, and there is nothing like fresh, spicy avakaya with rice. I remember all the cousins gathering around my grandmother as she emptied steaming hot rice into a large vessel. Large spoonfuls of avakaya would be ladled evenly over it. Then, she would reach into a nearby earthen pot for freshly churned butter to add to it. After mixing it well, she would make small balls of avakaya rice and place them in our outstretched palms. Nothing before or since has tasted better!

Avakaya rice

Avakaya rice | Photo Credit: Kalyani Gollamudi

Those summers also had another constant: my grandmother’s loud complaints to my grandfather. “This year too, the quantity of pickle will be half of the mangoes you ordered because your grandchildren, much like their mothers, spirited away the sliced raw fruit to eat when I was not looking.” And his response would never change: “Well, I ordered double the quantity for exactly this reason!”

After my grandparents, the tradition was carried over to my maternal aunt’s home for many delightful summers. Today, across Telugu homes, the ritual endures in rural and urban households. And for those who cannot find the time or the people to cut the mangoes, local markets are a boon. For the past two decades or so, during this season, one finds women cutting mangoes (chinna rasala, gulabi and jalaalu) for customers to take home by the kilo.

A woman cutting mangoes in a Secunderabad market. Since this needs skilful hands, many people today find it easier to buy such cut fruit to make avakaya.  

A woman cutting mangoes in a Secunderabad market. Since this needs skilful hands, many people today find it easier to buy such cut fruit to make avakaya.   | Photo Credit: Aruna Chandaraju

They toil in the open or under a tarpaulin sheet, cutting between 3 kg and 5 kg of mangoes (and charging ₹3-₹6 per mango) an hour. Men sometimes share the labour, and visit city homes to help those who want to make avakaya the traditional way.

The writer is a journalist, photographer, translator and critic, and author of Forgotten Composers.

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