Avakkai Pickle

There’s something so intensely satisfying about the calendrical ritual of making pickles, especially the raw mango kind. The ride starts in January, with the anticipation of summer and the bounty of mangoes that’s so emblematic of the season. The tiny but mighty vadu mangas or baby mangoes set the stage for summer with their arrival sometime at the end of February. You could pickle these bright green bullet shaped mangoes, by simply putting them in a brine of salt and lime juice or brine them in salt for a few days until they shrivel and flood the jar with water and zing them up with red chilli powder, more salt and mustard powder. Nothing is more representative of summer than a cooling plate of Thayir Sadam (Curd rice) and Maavadu (pickled vadu maanga).

By mid March, the markets are brimming with an eye-popping array of raw mangoes, calling out to be eaten, cooked with or pickled. Turn them into an Ennai Maangai pickle. Start by putting them in a brine of salt and turmeric and after a couple of days, boil the brine to thicken, pour it back into the mangoes along with choice spices mixed with heated and cooled oil. Give it a taste and rejoice! This is a preparation that I’ve seen being made only in my family.

For those seeking instant gratification, there’s the incredible Manga kari, a quintessential condiment in a sadhya (celebratory meal), which can be made in a trice by seasoning finely chopped mangoes with salt, turmeric, chilli powder and tempering it with mustard seeds and hing. Raw Mango Thokku, where grated mango is cooked down with oil and spices. It makes for a good change of texture and is perfect for serving with idlis and dosas. Find a fine balance between sweet and sour in a Gujarati chunda, made by cooking down grated mango with sugar, salt and a hint of spices and mop it up with parathas. You could travel up north and make a punchy raw mango and green chilli pickle made with Mustard oil and an aromatic blend of spices – Saunf, Nigella, Fenugreek and Mustard.

But the pickle that truly captures the imagination, hearts and the palates of people is the formidable Avakkai (Tamil) or Avakaya as it’s known in Telugu. Its fiery, vibrant and bold flavors are certainly reminiscent of the brilliantly hot and bright summer days. Each step of making this irresistible pickle is greatly rewarding to me. 

I thrill at the idea of taking a trip to the local markets, Malleswaram in this case, picking some choice raw mangoes ( firm, green and sour) suitable for making Avakkai. I’m wonderstruck by the man with the cleaver and a wooden block, who chops the tough mangoes into pieces in record time. My salivary glands are on an overdrive and there’s adrenaline coursing through my body,¬†as I collect the bag of chopped mangoes from the man. From here on, you shift gears into a more meditative state of touching, feeling and smelling. A sensory flow state of measuring the mangoes, preparing and grinding the spices, all based on a simple math. ‘Anjukku onnu’, my MIL would say in Tamil and something that most experienced pickle makers would agree with, which is, for every five cups of raw mangoes, use one cup each of red chili powder, mustard powder and sesame seed oil, except salt, start low and add as needed is the new norm with salt. Small quantities of fenugreek seeds and turmeric powder is added. Optional ingredients include Kala Chana/Black chickpeas and garlic pods. Once the ingredients are ready, the riot of colors, textures and flavors come together, with no fuss, in a jaadi or an earthenware jar. The deal is sealed (no pun intended) by loosely tying the mouth of the jaadi with a muslin cloth. That’s not all! The final act is one of expectant dormancy, where all one can do is sit around and wait for the mangoes, the spices and oil to do their thing and create magic in the jar. On the 3rd day or so, you open the jar with bated breath and naked lust, stir and taste, and you’re transported back into that familiar state of thrill!! Bottle it up, and experience the potency of summer year long!

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