These Tiruchi entrepreneurs capture the heat and spice of summer in a pickle jar

Tiruchi’s artisanal pickles that have helped enliven meals in many homes now cater to a loyal customer base online

Published - May 10, 2024 04:30 pm IST

R. Sasirekha (left) with team members at the Shri Poorna Foods pickle and condiments factory in Tiruchi.

R. Sasirekha (left) with team members at the Shri Poorna Foods pickle and condiments factory in Tiruchi. | Photo Credit: M MOORTHY

As the searing summer becomes the new normal, one old friend promises to make mealtimes tastier — the traditional Indian pickle.

Pickling was a way to preserve food and seasonal produce, especially in nomadic or trader communities. Today, they have assumed the role of pick-me-ups, spicy companions that elevate the taste of the humblest of dal and chapati or curd and rice combinations all through the year.

We meet some of Tiruchi’s artisanal pickle makers, whose products are wooing a new generation of consumers.

V. Vaidyanathan his wife Revathi as she tempers mango pickle with hot gingelly oil at their home-based unit in Srirangam. The couple run the Vembu Iyer pickle brand from home.

V. Vaidyanathan his wife Revathi as she tempers mango pickle with hot gingelly oil at their home-based unit in Srirangam. The couple run the Vembu Iyer pickle brand from home. | Photo Credit: M.MOORTHY

Tastes like tradition

Staying slow and steady has helped Srirangam-based V Vaidyanathan and his wife Revathi make the family-run enterprise Vembu Iyer Pickles score high with their customers, enticing them with a spoonful of nostalgia in each of their preparations.

“Customers say that our condiments remind them of their grandmothers’ cooking, from the days when summers used to be a time to make pickles and ‘vadagams’ in the hot sun,” says Revathi.

The pickle business was the brainchild of Vaidyanathan’s father Vembu Iyer, a Municipal officer in Tiruchi Corporation, who liked to gift the lime and kidarangai (wild lemon) pickles made by his wife Tirupurasundari, to his colleagues and friends.

“After retirement, appa realised that these pickles were good enough to sell, especially when friends started placing orders in large quantities,” says Vaidyanathan. “My parents began with just lime and kidarangai pickles, and 35 years later, we have diversified to over 15 items including mango ginger, maavadu (baby mango) and mint thokku, among others,” he says. Most of the pickles are priced in the range of ₹140.

Now a retiree, Vaidyanathan helps his wife prepare the pickles at their apartment in Srirangam. “All the ingredients are from Gandhi Market. Once the day’s cooking is done, we start working on the pickles, from chopping the base ingredients to mixing the spices,” says Revathi.

The more complicated preparations, such as the tomato thokku, where the fruit’s pulpy juice is cooked down with spices to a thick paste and takes nearly six hours to make, are Revathi’s domain. Meanwhile, Vaidyanathan works on the products that can be assembled with fewer steps.

Since Srirangam attracts many devotees to the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple and nearby shrines, some recipes do well during certain festivals. “Our pulikachal [a cooked tamarind paste] is very popular during the Aadi Perukku festival, especially among those travelling abroad. We prepare extra measures ahead of Vaikunta Ekadasi, Deepavali and Pongal. Often, after tasting our wares in restaurants or buying them in local groceries, many tourists contact us directly,” says Revathi. They also maintain a Facebook page for orders.

Another seasonal recipe is the Mahali Kizhangu pickle, made by soaking peeled sarsaparilla roots in seasoned buttermilk.

Nearly 2,000 bottles of Vembu Iyer pickles are prepared every month by the duo. Each bottle of pickle is sealed with the help of a hand-operated apparatus once the gingelly oil has been poured in and a foil layer is placed on top. This too, is done by Vaidyanathan and Revathi.

The couple relies on their shared memories of cooking with senior members of the family for the recipes. “We do not have any recipe books, but we know the exact proportion of spices and oil that go into each pickle,” says Revathi.

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Banana in focus

A view of Shri Poorna Foods pickle and condiments.

A view of Shri Poorna Foods pickle and condiments. | Photo Credit: M.MOORTHY

With an estimated 7,000 hectares of land devoted to banana cultivation in Tiruchi district, there is clearly no shortage of raw material for Shri Poorna Foods, which has made the crop a mainstay for its menu.

Led by R Sasirekha, a former lecturer, Shri Poorna Foods is known for its spicy vazhaipoo (banana flower) thokku and vazhaithandu (banana stem) pickle. “Every part of the banana plant has value; we use the stem and flower which are often neglected by home chefs due to the laborious preparation for cooking,” says Sasirekha. The condiments are sold upwards of ₹90.

Her spouse A Sivakumar, is the brain behind the Banana Star, a mechanical extractor of fibre from the pseudo-stem sheath of the plant, promoted since 2008 by his firm KP Enterprises, which was certified by the ICAR-National Research Centre for Banana (NRCB).

“Seeing the potential of banana fibre in insulation and weaving, I attended a course on plantain-based value-added products conducted by the NRCB. I started with handicrafts made with banana fibre, and then branched out into banana-based food items in 2012,” she says.

At the company’s Ponnagar unit, Sasirekha oversees a team of women employees who process the banana blossoms manually, removing the inner pistil and calyx from each floret, and steaming them ahead of marination and spicing.

Visitors can also see banana stems being cut into discs and smaller even pieces ahead of pickling. “These are not easy material to work with. Fibres keep peeling off from the stem each time it is cut, and banana flowers take a long time to be cleaned. Machines cannot achieve what an expert pair of human hands can,” says Sasirekha.

The products are packed for dispatch at another unit in Mannarpuram.

Besides these best-sellers, which are prepared to order, Shri Poorna has also diversified into banana chocolate and health food mixes. A wide range of the brand’s pickles, pastes and edible powder is retailed through their website and e-commerce platforms, besides local distributors.

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Meaty delights

K. Sabeena Saffi of Pickle World preparing chicken pickle at her home-based unit in Tiruchi.

K. Sabeena Saffi of Pickle World preparing chicken pickle at her home-based unit in Tiruchi. | Photo Credit: M.MOORTHY

Chicken pickle is bubbling away on the stove at Sabeena Saffi’s home in KK Nagar, filling the air with the promise of a piquant relish for customers. Sabeena’s homegrown Pickle World brand is a favourite with lovers of non-vegetarian condiments, thanks to its vibrant Instagram presence, handled by her daughter.

It is a huge change for the home chef, who originally ran a thriving henna and beauty parlour in Palakkarai area for over two decades. “When business folded up during the lockdown, my son suggested I try my hand at making and selling non-vegetarian pickles because they are not commonly sold in Tiruchi,” she says.

Most of her recipes are from her mother, whose Kerala roots bring an exotic touch to the pickles, made with beef, chicken, mutton, fish, and most recently, dried and salted prawn. Pickle World also sells regular vegetarian condiments, but Sabeena finds it tougher to work with the meats.

“Most vegetable pickles can be assembled easily because they are ready for tempering and storage after the initial marinating process. But pickling meat or fish needs cooking at every step, and zero addition of water. I use only vinegar for the marinade and rice bran oil for cooking,” she says.

Once done, the cooked pickle mix is covered with a clean muslin cloth and left out in the sunlight for curing. “It takes 24 hours for the flavours to develop, and then the pickle is ready to be packed,” she says.

Priced upwards of ₹300, Pickle World has developed a loyal fanbase online, with many orders also shipped to clients in the US and the UK.

“Without refrigeration, the pickles can last for three months, but usually customers say that they don’t need to wait that long; they get over within a few days of buying,” Sabeena laughs.

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