The translucent mango and the flamy chilli make the best accompaniment to any meal
This hunt happens every July, and in the past I’ve had to go to Sarojini Nagar, or beg my local vegetable shop owner, Shukla-ji, to pick up a few kilos from the mandi, the wholesale market where he shops every morning. It’s for Ram Kela, the variety of mango best for making pickles, because, and this is received wisdom that I’ve never tested, other varieties don’t last well in pickles: they get pulpy in a few weeks or the fibres are too long. Ram Kela comes only in late July—unlike all other varieties, of fallen mangoes or even those plucked raw to sell for pickling—and it’s worth waiting for.
All my life my mother had sent me pickles—first to the college hostel and later to my home when I was married. So the first time I made pickle, it was with huge trepidation, but I had found my mother’s recipe book after she was gone. That year I was advised to have the mango cut in the shop because the fruit is so hard a normal knife won’t do. I remember the horrible accident that befell my father when he was commandeered to help. He had always complained that the size of each cut segment was too long, and that the shapes of all the pieces were not identical.
So he scrubbed and dried a wooden plank, sharpened his knives and started. It took a lot of force and after cutting a few mangoes he lifted the knife, brought it down with a lot of strength, and suddenly cut through his own thumbnail. Lots of blood and bandages later, the family reverted to the usual style of cutting.
Carting the mangoes
So I went to Sarojini Nagar, fully prepared to have it cut there. I carried two half-full buckets of water sloshing in the boot of my car, a plastic sheet, new sponges for scrubbing, and clean, dry dishcloths.
I washed and dried the mangoes before he cut them. That was my first attempt and the pickle was good.
The recipe for the one I was making, traditional Punjabi mango pickle, turned out to be dead simple and I wrote about it in these columns some years ago. As I gained in confidence, I started chopping my own mangoes and experimenting with recipes. Meanwhile, I had acquired the right implement. Kavita had brought me a heavy stainless steel meat chopper from abroad and it has been used to good effect on vegetables for pickling.
Sarojini Nagar and Shukla-ji are now history. A couple of years ago, I saw a rehri–wala pushing his fruit-laden cart in my neighbourhood, stopped, reversed and chatted him up. Hem Raj agreed to bring me Ram Kela at a price substantially lower than Shukla-ji’s.
So this is the routine: a large plastic tub is filled with water and detergent powder. My cook is always shocked at the detergent but, as I tell him, we have to remove the resin secreted from the stem end, and, in any case, if we can use detergent on plates and spoons, why not on foods with skins? The mangoes are soaked overnight—though that’s not really necessary, but I like to make scrubbing easier. Next morning we wash and rinse the mangoes, wipe them dry, and then leave them lying about on clean dusters for a couple of hours. We measure the spices, grinding where necessary. Then we chop the mangoes. I’ve learnt that it’s better to cut them into smallish pieces because one can always take two or more, which is better than a too-large piece of which one might waste half.
Another traditional Punjabi mango pickle is what is called a chutney. Sweet and sour, it can be made with gur, but since I have none of that so many months after winter, I make it with plain sugar, and it’s sweet and sour, golden brown, treacly juice speckled with crunchy whole spices, perfect with salty Indian meals, particularly omelettes and parathas, my mother’s favourite. She didn’t leave a recipe for it, so I got it from my cousin Meera. Meera cuts the mango into small ‘chips’, rather than grating them, and the pieces are a delight to bite into.
Sweet and sour
One year I learnt to make a Maharashtrian sweet-and-sour mango pickle with tamarind and gur, but sadly I’ve lost the recipe. What I’ve learnt instead is the South Indian mango pickle called avakkai. This is a very, very strong red chilli paste pickle, best eaten in tiny quantities with a lot of bland dal-chawal on the side.
This year, our friend Aman sent across a couple of kilos of fat green chillies. They were large and thick, so I assumed they would be bogus and capsicum-like. But I was wrong—they were hot! I would have loved to stuff them for a pickle, but didn’t know how, so I chopped them up for a family favourite, green chilli with rai, the small brown mustard seeds. The pungency comes from the chillies themselves, coupled with raw mustard oil added in the end. My daughter, who used to be unable to eat anything with the slightest hint of chillies, is now such an addict she carries away bottles of it to liven up her dull quotidian dal-sabzi.
Andhra Avakkai Raw Mango Pickle
1 kg raw mangos, cut into convenient wedges
250 g red chilli powder (or less)
250 g mustard (rai) powder, finely ground
1/4 tsp haldi powder (turmeric)
1 tsp methi dana (fenugreek seeds)
20-30 garlic cloves, peeled
750 ml sesame oil
In a large bowl, mix all dry ingredients. Add cut mangos and garlic. Add 500ml oil. Stir and leave to rest for 3 days. Pickle will release juices. Top up with remaining oil and bottle.
If pickle is very wet and juicy, add less oil at the end on Day 3.
Green Chilli Pickle With Dry Mustard
250g green chillies, chopped
100g rai (small brown mustard seeds), ground
1 cup mustard oil
Mix everything together and it’s ready to eat at once.
Khatti Meethi Aam Ki Chutney
Sweet and sour raw mango chutney
2 kg Ram Kela, peeled and cut into ‘chips’
Equal weight sugar
1tbsp saunf (fennel, large)
1 tbsp methi dana (fenugreek seeds)
1 tsp kalonji (nigella, onion seed)
4-6 whole dry red chillies
1 tsp peppercorns
1 1/2cups malt (or Mohun’s brewed) vinegar
Cook together mango, sugar, salt and spices. Keep the heat on medium to avoid scorching. When mango is translucent, add vinegar. Boil. Remove from heat while there is juice. Do not wait till it’s thick.
From the once-forbidden joy of eating eggs to the ingratitude of dinner guests, the writer reflects about every association with food.