Vikram Mumbarkar is leaving for US for his Masters in Economics. He has his bag packed to the brim. His mom and sister have checked and re-checked it umpteen times to make sure nothing is left behind. They think all of it is in place! Just then Vikram enters the room and says, “Aai!! I hope the aambyache lonche is well packed and there is no oil leakage!” That is when his mom and sister realize that they missed on packing the pickle they was prepared especially for him. The family believed that even if Vikram had no time to cook a meal while he was studying, the pickle would prove handy and give him a meal akin to home food.
Pickles have many stories associated with them. They serve as good accompaniments to a hearty meal, as last minute help to put together a meal and offer great nostalgia. Many codes are embedded in the pickle. This ubiquitous food of India has many narratives to share – of the producer, the consumer and of time itself.
Pickling is a form of preservation. Study reveals that it was women who would preserve seeds for future cultivation. In India we have often heard stories of women preserving household earnings. Preservation of a strong present in anticipation of uncertain tomorrows has been the role of women as culture custodians and upholders of values and traditions.
Perhaps the idea of preservation itself came from the desire and need to save for rainy days. Many community pickles happened by accident, many due to the discoveries of preservatives like cider, vinegar, molasses, sea salt, brine etc. In the early days, seafarers caught fish from water and tied them to the ships for drying. The salty taste and the longevity of this fish led to the idea of preserving fish and many other foods with salt in sunlight. Pickles became a smart way of extending seasons in the agricultural era where the yields were dependant on rains alone. Thus, in coastal regions, during monsoons, mango pickles came out of the cloth tied porcelain jars and satiated the gastronomic cravings of all old and young in the family.
Everything could be preserved, from fruits to vegetables to prawns; pickles were often created as a way for mothers and grandmothers to create a taste of strange vegetables like bitter gourd with the young. Come summer and many households would get busy with women of the family coming together to create pickles for the season ahead, spices were ground, fruits/vegetables were cut and magical pickles were created. Along came many stories, beliefs and practices around pickles and their consumption patterns too.
In an innocent way pickles have served as being cultural carriers from one generation to the other as recipes of pickles are passed down akin to heirloom! Each family has a signature recipe of a pickle that is incomparable to any other. There are several secret methods believed to be known only by the mother, which is usually passed on to the daughters. In Maharashtra, five such signature pickles (sweet and sour) become a part of the bride’s trousseau! The extreme craving of nimbu pickles have created narratives of signaling pregnancy. Various life stage happenings have sharp pickle does and don’ts. After the delivery of the child, the new mother is not allowed to touch pickles for at least 3 months and during menstrual cycles, women are disdained from touching pickle jars nor allowed to prepare pickle. Pickles have a mention in ayurveda too, having medicinal properties.
As modernity knocks at our door with ready to eat packs and microwavable food, factory made pickles too have entered our homes. With constant reinvention of roles of the consumers and producers, we see that pickling too has undergone changes. Many brands, companies have brought this product to us on supermarket shelves. Women today pickle beyond the purpose of serving the family, many have turned into entrepreneurs that sell the taste of homemade pickles to others with a scarcity of time and skill. Even today the organized players in the pickle industry find fierce competition to gain domestic market share as they compete with these skilled women that sell community based recipes, tradition and nostalgia along with the pickle jar. Women today pickle to economically liberate themselves and in turn give an opportunity to other women and their families to share the wide variety of tastes and flavours.
The success and domination of community brands, amidst the organized industry suggests the relevance of rooted recipes, patterns of consumption and the importance of emotional connect with food, the producer and the consumer. With the feasibility of many narratives with pickles- from its making to its storing, throws up many opportunities for marketers, food producers and companies to think for this product category. It’s the women who have pickled that will have the recipe to creating successful pickle brands and products. Those brands that have over heard the pickling tales from these women will have understood that this is an art and science and in the combination of the two lays many new narratives for consumers to taste!