Mango pickle, an integral part of Indian meal, especially southern India was the name of choice for this website due to the nostalgia it brought with it. There are several varieties of pickles made out of different vegetables all across India. Though usually spicy, they all differ in their taste and processing. Mango pickle, the original variety made out of baby green mango is special because of the seasonality and the process it involves. The baby Mangoes used for pickling are of special variety that are specifically harvested for pickling. There is something about these baby mango pickles that has nostalgic qualities, the spicy, zesty flavor that instantly makes my mouth water also brings back the childhood memories of watching those off-white ciramic jars with mustard yellow stripes on them lined up in a dedicated attic that stored “rainy day” food.
In the agriculture driven regions of southern coastal lines of India, the process of pickling is a big deal. It represents a season, a tradition and planning for the rainy day, literally. The tropical belt of south India with dense western ghat forests often get plenty of rain forcing people stay inside home. The rainfall also brings shortage of vegetable supply and calls for creative ways to utilize what is available and still bring variety. Pickling is one such process that helps preserve many summer ingredients and extend their usage well into rainy season. There are two types of pickling that is in practice, The simple pickling preserves certain types of vegetables/fruits in an acidic solution, which is usually a saturated salt solution, where a large amounts of salt is dissolved by boiling in the water, cooling it off and using as preservative solution.
This type of pickling is used to preserve some summer vegetables to carry on to rainy season. Most common types stored are raw mangoes and green Jackfruit slices. This also explains the creativity of the regional cuisine that just seem to master the skill of using the same key ingredient and turning it into different dish with slight change in process. A more complex form of pickling takes from this first step and adds carefully processed spices, without any exposure to water or moisture, in order to preserve the pickle for a long time, typically couple years. These type of pickles are used as side dish and they are popular and even commercially available.
The pickling of baby mangoes and green mangoes before they start ripening is a process that starts few months before the peak summer months, typically March. It is a period of much activity in the households, where the men go shopping for best quality mangoes harvested specifically for pickling. There are baby mangoes that are available in different flavors such as cumin which are perfect for pickling. There is a big tradition of raw mango based dishes in this region of India which also produces many varieties of mangoes.
The baby mango pickling for spicy version starts around March, and usually mangoes that are just a few weeks old are picked, much before the skin around their seed starts thickening. The expert eyes of a harvester and buyer can assess the right age for the mango just by looking at them. A large batch of these Mangoes are sold along with few inches of stem attached to them. It is vivid in my memory that, among the women of my grand mom’s generation the number of mangoes they have pickled that year used to be one of the main topics of conversation during the social gatherings heavy season of summer months.
Once the baby mangoes are bought, generally sold for a price per a thousand mangoes, are first separated from their thin stems, washed and wiped off of excess water with a clean cotton cloth. The tiny stems attached to the mangoes bleed a type of acidic liquid that has very strong sour flavor and is carefully stored in a glass bottle. This liquid is highly acidic and can burn the skin if spills over, but, works as a highly concentrated raw mangoe flavor and is used in certain types of dishes. The mangoes are then transferred to a jar and filled with alternate layers of clean and dry baby mangoes and crystalized sea salt. After the jars are filled, lids are closed and their mouth is tied with a cotton cloth and transferred to attic for the pickling process to begin. The pickling process is the same for the non-spicy pickles that are pickled for preserving them into rainy season.
After about 3-4 weeks the mangoes are ready for more spices. Time to time in those few weeks, someone will open the mouth of the jar and stir the now liquidized salt solution and mangoes. One of the old memories of me is finding my grand mom stirring the liquid when we went to attic to play. When the Mangoes are sufficiently wrinkled (fermented), women start working on the spice mixture, this is a big day & usually few women either from neighboring households or among relatives gather together to divide and conquer. The stone blender that women used to grind is wiped clean, every spoon that will be used is held on top of the stove flame to make sure there is no moisture left. Then the spices such as mustard, fenugreek etc are roasted and ground together with tons of dried red chilli into a fine paste, the recipe changes from region to region or sometimes even from household to household but only slightly. No where in the process plain water is used, only using boiled, highly saturated salt solution is used even to grind the paste. Finally after almost a day of effort depending on the quantity of pickle being processed, the spice mixture goes into the jar containing baby Mango, one good stir and jars are transferred back to attic for the spices to get mixed up well with the salt and juice of mangoes and for them to absorb all the mixture. The spices are so strong that I remember at the end of the day long process women applying plenty of oil to their hand to subside burning!
Every few days the pickle jar gets to see the light of the day, gets a nice stir and sometimes a shower of salt water and goes back to its dark attic for a rest. In a month or two time the spices get mixed up well and the pickle is ready for consumption. At this time, hot oil seasoning with mustard and asafotedea is added to the pickle and only a portion needed for daily consumption is transferred to smaller jar. Now, the pickle jar gets a new home, the kitchen cabinets and starts being an integral part of daily meal.
That’s the story of Mango pickle, that was such an integral part of the food tradition in some generations. Today pickles are widely available in several commercial brands for mass consumption. I have written this entire article with my mouth watering constantly and involuntarily and a video playing back of my mind with the old memories of my childhood reminding me the lifestyle of a generation. Long live the Mango Pickle!!!