Monday, April 15, 2024

Achaar: The epitome of condiments

Written By Sashrika Pratap

Ahh! The sour, sultry smell filled my insides as the whole household livened up at the sight of the achaar being filled up in countless jars to be sent off to relatives for the winter season. Spicy, salty, sweet, sour. Achaar, also known commonly as pickles, is the epitome of condiments in India. It is made by fermenting fruits and vegetables with a blend of spices and oil. This method was used to preserve the pickled goods, especially during the monsoon season. 

Achaar has been around for centuries, forming an integral part of Indian cuisine. According to statistics and data, it is proven that cucumbers were the first ingredient to be pickled in 230 BCE in the Tigris Valley, Mesopotamia. Other sources also reveal that the origin of achaar can also be spanned across Dutch, Persian, and Portuguese history. 

Like many other Bengali families, our family too would come together to prepare achaar to last us for the year. I still remember vividly how everyone in the family would march around my grandmother’s orders. Each person would have an active role in the process of making achaar. However, the preparation of achaar is more than just an act; it’s a tradition that stems back to thousands of years. Achaar was, still is and always will be a staple for all Bengalis. 

My grandmother, like most others, is the one-standing all-knowing personage who has countless tricks up her sleeves to make this delicious, pungent dish. She is well versed in almost all types of achaar but her specialty definitely lies in making ‘aam er achaar’ translating to mango pickle and ‘tetul er achaar’ meaning tamarind pickle. 

Any authentic Bengali home will always serve their unique and enticing homemade achaars made with fresh ingredients that bring any simple meal to life by adding a sharp, spicy burst through their taste palette. The sourness from the raw tamarind, sweetness from jaggery or sugar, heat from the dried, crushed up red chillies and the nutty flavour of the mustard oil together forms this flavour bomb. There are many different ways to make ‘tetul er achaar’ but this one here is a special and confidential recipe that my grandmother refuses to share with anyone except for her close ones. Translating to tamarind pickle and often described as ‘tak, jhal, and mishti’ (sour, spicy and sweet), this pickle is one of the best hot, spicy pickle combinations that will jumpstart one’s taste buds when eaten. Prepared in the month of April, ‘tetul er achaar’ is an achaar that will just want you craving for more. To make ‘tetul er achaar’, firstly, the peripheral covering of the tamarind needs to be removed and the tamarind must be soaked in water overnight. The next day, the tamarind, which will have bulged out due to the absorption of water, needs to be strained to obtain the pulp. After that, with the seeds being removed, salt and turmeric needs to be added to the pulp. This mixture then needs to be put out in the sun so that the salt melts and enters the crevices of the tamarind. When it becomes a little dry, the jaggery, along with mustard oil and powdered chillies is added and it is put under the heat once again. Around three days later, this preparation needs to be added to the pan where fennel, fenugreek and a little bit of cumin will be added. This concoction is put into jars which are again kept under the radiating heat of the sun to enhance its fragrance and is finally dispatched to friends and family.

I can still remember it, as clear as day, when, on one year, my grandmother’s big batch of achaar went missing. We all woke up, already salivating, thinking about how delicious our meal would be because that day would have been the day the achaar would be brought down from the terrace, ready to be enjoyed by everyone. My siblings and I ran up to the terrace to gaze longily at the achaar to come to realise that the achaar was missing. We rushed downstairs to inform our family of this terrible ordeal, and then, the hunt began. We looked everywhere, in the nooks and crannies of the house to hunt for any signs that would help us to locate the achaar. Suddenly, after a long time, I saw the dogs barking and running to the porch to sniff at something in the ground. Being suspicious of this, I ran downstairs to inspect it and lo and behold! There were the jars of achaars hidden under the planted pots. We all looked around at one another, hoping to find the culprit, and there was my uncle, standing meekly, red in the face. After we all launched into our arguments, he finally told us that he was going to be returning to the US in a couple of days and he had wanted all the achaar to himself.  

Making achaar is a joyful experience, with this year being the first time I made a small batch of achaar on my own, of course, under the careful supervision of my strict grandmother, who was, as always, jumping in to assist me. My grandmother’s achaars are appreciated everywhere and once they have tried it, people come begging for more. I have always savoured every last spoonful of this delicacy hoping to never let the taste escape my mouth. This lip-smacking and scrumptious delight is and will always hold a special place in my heart. 

Featured Image Courtesy – The Spruce Eats


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