Home-cooked Indian cuisine can be an intimidating concept. To begin with, cracking the code to combinations of unique spices that most Westerners have never heard of—ingredients like fenugreek, asafoetida (the root of a plant similar to wild fennel, used powdered) and ajwan (tiny berries somewhat like coriander that add bitterness)—can be a daunting task. Even the ours have different names. And often it seems that cooking an authentic Indian meal demands a trip to a specialty grocery store in San Jose—where the largest population of Indians out- side of India resides. It’s a great resource, but feels like a long way to go to procure ingredients for dinner. ere is one trick, however, that can make your meal taste like the real thing without too much fuss: Serv- ing Indian pickles will add authentic avor to even a simple meal of basmati rice and dal.
Pickles are an essential part of any Indian platter and are served as a condiment with most meals on the subcontinent. ey have an in- tense avor and can add an explosion of true Indian taste to your table. A friend who went to boarding school in India says she loved how everyone would bring a jar of homemade pickles at the beginning of each semester and she would be able to try pickles from every region. It was a cultural experience every time she ate.
You may purchase a variety of pretty good pickles at an Indian gro- cery store, providing you with a good place to start to acquire a taste for the strong spices and salt typical of Indian cuisine. One of my favorite markets is the New India Bazar in Santa Clara, which stocks a good se- lection of organic bulk items and exotic produce. It can feel like a quick trip to India with the colors, smells and the long checkout queue that snakes through the store. I’m usually the only non-Indian there.
Depending on the region and the season, Indian pickles are made out of all sorts of fruits and vegetables that do not grow in North Amer- ica, such as amla fruit. But one of my favorite kinds of Indian pickle is made with lemons and is a standout. It is sort of a distant cousin to Mo- roccan preserved lemons as they are both cured with salt, but that is just the beginning.
Interestingly, Indian pickles are the only pickles in the world that are cured in direct sunlight. e sun helps break down the hard fruit or veg- etables and encourages the oils to penetrate the surface. ere are a lot of recipes out there for quick Indian pickles, but one should not be tempted to take these shortcuts. It takes time to really develop the sourness of the pickle that balances the avors of spicy, salty, bitter and sweet. ey are all there if you give them enough time to develop. Patience is a quality ac- cordant with the authentic Indian experience.