This piece of mine appeared in the Mumbai Mirror's comfort food section.
Pickle queen, my aunt remarked as she saw me scraping the bottom of the glass jar for the last of the green chilli pickle my maternal grandmother had made. I smiled. I love pickles and have a palate that allows me to experiment with stuff such as radish pickle, olive pickle and even chicken-and-egg pickle.
I wasn't born with a stomach for achaari delights. As a child, I would rather tuck into a honey or butter-sugar mix with my bread and chapattis. “My son likes the sour and spicy stuff; and my daughter has a sweet-tooth,” my mother would tell neighbours. But pickles were very much a part of my life and the lives of my near-and-dear ones, especially that of my maternal grandmother in Patna.
She would spend a fortnight every winter making pickles out of every conceivable vegetable — beet-root, carrot, cucumber, onion, Indian olive, garlic and ginger. She would neatly line them up in glass jars in cupboards with iron-net doors to let in sunlight. Making pickles was her hobby and I liked assisting her. She never told me her recipes though. She said that we would have to return to her for more.
And so we did.It was during one of those annual visits to Patna that I developed a liking for my grandma's special red chilli pickle. I even sneaked into the kitchen one night to watch her mix the masalas and the chillies with mustard oil. The aroma was overpowering, but strangely comforting. While the super-spicy pickle was a favourite accompaniment to the aloo ka paratha, it be came a sandwich filler, quite accidentally. The Mumbai-Patna train journey takes almost 36 hours. In those days, you could call yourself lucky if your train was less than 10 hours late. My grandmother would always pack food for us for the lengthy return journey.
On one such occasion, she packed parathas, pickle and a loaf of bread (“For the kids. In case they get hungry”). The parathas we had for dinner, but the bread was too dry (thanks to the AC) for next morning’s breakfast. So mom buttered two slices of bread and dabbed some of the red chilli pickle and we had our first pickle sandwich.
Over the course of time, the sandwich made its presence in my school lunch-box (my friends loved it). Mom innovated too – mixing grated cucumber with the pickle sometimes, or grandma’s pickle with Bedekar's mango pickle and even honey, butter and pickle (simply awesome!)
Thank God for innovation, and thank God for grandmas!