Indian pickles are a wildly different beast from their Western counterparts. They’re fiery concoctions made out of a variety of vegetables, fruit, or sometimes even fish and meat. Take your average kosher dill pickle, add about 25 different spices to it, a quart of oil, and let it ferment in the sun for a week and you might just end up with something approaching an Indian pickle. It’s a good thing, I promise.
As weird and obscure as they seem, Indian pickles do have something in common with Western-style pickles: both are methods of preserving fruit and vegetables long after they’ve gone out of season. The Kannada word for pickles, uppinakayi, hints at this. The word literally means “salt fruit.” Traditionally, Indian pickles are made by mixing fruit with salt and letting it sit in direct sunlight for a week or more till the fruit becomes pliable, leathery, and lightly fermented. It’s then briefly cooked with a great quantity of oil and spices and bottled for future use. Of course there are endless regional variations on this basic theme, including pickles that get stored above kitchen hearths so that the cooking smoke adds its own preservative effect to that of the salt.
This eggplant pickle is one that my mother made in great quantities when I was a child. The roots of this particular recipe are widespread, taking equal inspiration from Portuguese-Goan kitchens with its use of vinegar, and from local Kannadiga cooking with its use of dried red chile powder. The use of dry mustard powder (Colman's preferred) is a distinctly Anglo-Indian touch.
If you were to use Western pickle parlance to describe it, you’d call this a quick pickle—meaning, simply, that it doesn’t require any advance salting and fermenting. Importantly, it also means that the pickle doesn’t have the required acidity that would make it safe to store at room temperature, even if you can and process it. So, make sure to save a little room in your refrigerator before you start.
A note on oil: This recipe uses what can seem like a frightening amount of oil. This is partly because you really need a lot of oil to fry the spices, eggplant and aromatics to the right texture, but also because the finished pickle is supposed to be suspended in a highly seasoned oil that almost serves as a sauce. Also, a little of this pickle goes a long way, so each serving will only have a teaspoon or so of oil—consider it an occasional, spicy indulgence.
A note on chile powder: Chile powders vary enormously in potency. Many Indian cooks will keep two varieties on hand: one for color and aroma, and another for sheer, brute heat. Find varieties that work for your own spice tolerance and use them in different proportions to suit your needs. Most Indian grocery stores will stock what they sell as "Kashmiri Chili Powder" that lends food an attractive (and natural) color, but is not unbearably spicy.
1 lb large eggplant, cut into ½” cubes
6 cloves garlic, peeled
½” piece ginger, peeled
3 teaspoon red chile powder (see note)
1 tsp cumin seed, toasted and finely ground
1 tsp dry mustard powder
4 tbsp granulated sugar
Salt to taste
5 green chiles, slit in half and seeds removed, depending on taste
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup white vinegar
In a blender jar combine ginger, garlic, and 4-5 tablespoons of vinegar and blend on high speed to form a fine purée.
In a medium-sized pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat till it begins to shimmer.
Add the ginger and garlic puree and cook, stirring often, till the raw smell of the ginger and garlic disappears and the mixture begins to smell sweet and toasty. Do not let it get too dark.
Add the red chile powder, powdered toasted cumin and mustard powder. Stir until thoroughly combined.
Add the cubes of eggplant and green chiles, tossing to coat with the seasoned oil.
Add sugar, salt, and vinegar, mix to combine thoroughly, and cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, for 20-25 minutes until the eggplant is very tender but still holds its shape. Taste for seasoning and adjust salt, vinegar, and sugar as needed. The pickle should be a compelling blend of heat, sweetness, and acidity. The sauce should be glossy and reduced and should coat the pieces of eggplant liberally.
Let cool before spooning into clean jars and storing in the refrigerator.
Let the pickle come to room temperature before using. Enjoy with rice and dhal, chitranna, or even smeared on some toast and topped with chicken salad.