Pickle: History Preserved in a Jar

5 minsMay 10, 2019


4000 years is a long time to survive, even for pickle, but the practice of pickling is indeed that old. In fact, the world’s oldest known case of pickling – the practice of preserving a fruit or vegetable by adding an acidic agent like brine – is deeply connected with India. So, the next time you enjoy delectable Dining Delights from Axis Bank, here’s something to chew on.

According to the New York Food Museum, cucumbers, which are native to India and believed to have grown wild in the foothills of the Himalayas, were preserved in brine and carried westward to Mesopotamia as far back as 2030 BCE.

Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) commented on the curative properties of pickles, while Roman Emperor Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) is said to have been so fond of them that he fed pickles to his men before every battle as he believed they bestowed physical and spiritual strength! And, believe it or not, but in the 1st Century BCE, Roman Emperor Tiberius (42 BCE-37 CE) insisted that pickled cucumbers were incorporated into his meals every day.

Centuries later, explorers and seafarers like Christopher Columbus (1451–1506 CE) and Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512 CE) stocked their ships with pickles to battle food scarcity and prevent scurvy among sailors caused by a lack of Vitamin C.

In India, pickles went beyond just preservation in brine. Ibn Battuta (1304-1377 CE), a Moroccan traveller and writer who chronicled daily life during the reign of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq in the 14th century CE, noted that mango and ginger pickle was an accompaniment to meals: ‘The fruit [mango] is about the size of a large damask prune, which when green and not quite ripe, of those which happen to fall, they salt and thus preserve them just as lemon is preserved with us. In same manner, they preserve ginger when it is green, as also pods of pepper and this they eat with their meals.’

As food historian K T Achaya's tells us in A Historical Definition of Indian Food, Indian pickles were highly evolved several centuries ago. ‘A Kannada work of 1594 CE, the Lingapurna of Gurulinga Desika, describes no less than 50 kinds of pickles,’ states Achaya. Pickled foods included wild mangoes, limes, lemons, brinjals and chillies as well as pork, prawns and fish. A later mention is found in the 17th-century CE work, Śivatattvaratnākara, an encyclopaedia of ancient Indian lore of Basavarāja, King of Keladi.

So why is it called ‘pickle’? The word comes from the Dutch word pekel or the German pókel, meaning ‘salt’ or ‘brine’. The Hindi term, āchār is most likely derived from āchār in Persian meaning ‘powdered or salted meats, pickles or fruits preserved in salt, vinegar, honey or syrup’.

There is an endless variety of pickles across the world but some are associated with specific countries such as German sauerkraut (sour pickled cabbage), South Korean kimchi, and the pickled herring relished in Nordic countries.

India has a staggering variety of pickles. Mango, for instance, can be pickled in the Gujarati or Maharashtrian sweet chunda style, or as the garlic-chilli laden generic avakaya, the spicy aam ka achar eaten in North India, the fresh thokus of the South, and rare bottles of Parsi buffena (made from ripe mangoes).

An interesting type of pickle is Akhuni from Nagaland, for which beans are carefully fermented, smoked and spiked with bhut jolokia (one of the world’s hottest peppers). Kerala’s meen achar (fish pickle) or the spicy Goan prawn balchao are relished across India.

So, whether a rare preparation or an all-time favorite, you can be sure that every Indian kitchen has at least one bottle of flavourful āchār to add some spice to a dull meal!

Disclaimer: This article has been authored by Live History India Digital; a Mumbai based Digital Content Company. Axis Bank doesn't influence any views of the author in any way. Axis Bank & Live History India Digital shall not be responsible for any direct / indirect loss or liability incurred by the reader for taking any financial decisions based on the contents and information. Please consult your financial advisor before making any financial decision.


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