Yesterday, one of my colleagues gifted me a very fine Avakai pickle that she had made at home. That’s when I realized that what we need in India is a bit more of pickle snobbery.
In the Western world, it is considered a mark of refinement – not to say upper-crust behavior – to be a wine snob. The discerning oenophile can, with nothing more than the tip of his tongue, correctly identify the type, vintage, origin and growth of a fine wine. He can even, so the stories go, tell you if the wine was stored in an oak cask or a stainless steel cask. The wine snob knows whether a lamb roast should be accompanied by a Zinfandel or a Pinot Noir, and whether a Chateau Latour 1999 is better than a 2001.
I lived in California for several years, and I confess I tried hard to become a wine snob. I read compulsively about the difference between a Pinot and a Pinot Noir. I bought little bottles of wine and conscientiously maintained a tasting diary. Whenever guests would come a-calling to my part of California, a must-do activity was a lazy drive around the Sonoma and Napa valleys, hunting for wine tasting events and roaming around the vineyards.
I didn’t become very good at it, but longed for something as pretentious as wine-tasting that I could do when I got back to India. And it struck me yesterday – pickle tasting!
It takes a lot to make a fine Avakai pickle. The mangoes must be chosen with utmost care – not dissimilar to the grape choosing. They must be cut with knives of just the right sharpness, slicing them like a surgeon wields a scalpel. Then the marinade must be made – with mustard, salt, oil, chillis, garlic and a handful of other ingredients that each family guards as a precious secret. There is enough ritual in the making of the Avakai to compose entire liturgies.
And the pairings! Everyone has a ‘One True Way’ of eating pickle. My colleague gave me strict instructions – hot rice, two spoons of ghee, one piece of mango and one spoon of the marinade. Mash it together, and eat it with a side of lightly-cooked lentils.
I told her we usually eat pickles with curd rice. She was as aghast as a Sonoma vintner who’s asked whether it’s ok to mix some water in the wine before drinking it. I told her that we usually buy our Avakai from one of the big brands. She had such a fit of righteous anger that I think she isn’t going to speak to me about pickle again.
And it’s not just Avakai. My grand-mother, in her younger days, was an inveterate warrior of pickle-making, competing with her sisters in annual pickle-making contests of the highest caliber. Mango was, of course, king of the pickles, but a close second was that bitter citrus, Narthankai, from which a bewildering array of pickles can be concocted. My father too has his specialties – a garlic pickle (which, truth be told, I carefully avoid) and a lime, prepared with whole pepper-seeds, tiny green wild chilis (the variety is called the Gandhari), and ginger.
What could be more enjoyable than a pickle face-off every year? I can picture it now – come June, and in every household, the pickle jars are carefully unloaded from the store rooms, their seals removed, and, after examining the bouquet and color, with the utmost care and discernment, a tiny bit is placed on the tongue for tasting.
We could make a religion of it…
There’s a saying in Telugu that the true Andhra-ite would choose Avakai over even the nectar of the Gods. Frankly, so would I.