Preserving summer in a jar

Have you caught the pickling bug? It’s a job easier said than done

Published - May 12, 2024 05:48 am IST

No matter the number of times I fail at the task, raw mangoes beckon every summer.

No matter the number of times I fail at the task, raw mangoes beckon every summer. | Photo Credit: Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

My friend and I have been discussing mango pickle. The pickling bug has hit her and she thinks I would know more about it – I don’t – because I am from avakaya land and she is sure I have made it myself. My shame at failing at pickling is proportionate to its legendary long shelf life —the humiliation of flopping two years in a row has not left me. Nor has the pickle bug. All this messaging with my friend is tempting me even more, but I have told her I am resisting.

Preserving summer in a jar is easier said than done. Look at the amount of advice available. The juiciest mangoes are the best. Look for fibrous ones. Wipe, air-dry. Sun-dry everything. Get the smallest mustard seeds. The big seeds make the best mustard powder. Roast. Don’t roast. Powder. Don’t buy from the store. Ensure the cleanest, driest hands, utensils, and accessories. Soak, dry, cut, dry. Mix oil and spices using hands, not ladles. Add salt. Don’t add too much salt, you can always add it later. Rest (the pickle, not you) for three days. Stir once each day. Leave it alone for four days.

In the absence of omniscient and cherished grandmothers, like all modern women, I turned to YouTube.

I do not have the special knife that can cut through the mango’s endocarp, the hard portion that contains the seed. For the classic avakaya, each piece has to have a bit of it attached for the pickle to last. I tried the maagai, which involves curing long, salted pieces of mango for a few days; a grated variety; and the chhundo, a sweet-spicy jammy affair that needed to be sunned for days.

The results were varied. In one, the flavours did not meld. Another did not yield pickling liquor, remaining dry even on the third day. One even smelt yeasty.

Firefighting measures: Add more oil. Lower expectations. Foresee fungus. (And voilà, snow-white fungus raises its hairy head!)

Buy more mangoes. Hold on to curtailed expectations. The bug is alive and kicking, but now there is the heroic resolve to never say die, while battling low self-esteem and unsettling introspection about why I failed even at such light challenges. Why was I taking them on? Because I was refusing to face bigger ones? Never mind all that, I could not wait to see the end result.

The maagai turned out salty and inedible. With my weak head for maths, I had probably messed up the proportions while adapting the recipe to a smaller number of raw mangoes. The blazing sun refused to reduce the sugar in the chhundo to the promised one-string consistency even after a week. Tired of trudging up to the terrace, I began sunning it on my shady window sill, telling myself I really needed to relax. The third pickle made of grated mango died, desiccated and sun-stroked. After a week, I reclaimed the chhundo from the window and cooked it down in my kitchen. It was good enough. But it being sugar and all, I rarely ate it. When I opened it recently, it was smelling distinctly of spirit.

Never again, I told myself. Why do I need all this mess when I never run short of family-made pickle? And I stuck to my resolve. Till my friend messaged and sent videos. Nope, I told her, I have lots to get through.

Then I got on to the Internet and ordered some more from some home business. Then I bought some white sesame to try a version I had spotted on YouTube last year. I really should try my hand at it.

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