The word “pickle” evokes different things for different people. For many American diners, the quintessential pickle is something that made its way into the American kitchen (and onto the American hamburger) from its first home in the kitchens of Eastern and Central Europe. A pickle, in short, is, has been, always will be, a cucumber immersed in a tart brine spiked with coriander and other spices. And even among the gherkin aficionados there is significant disagreement: dill pickles, sours, bread-and-butter, spears, coins? The arguments are neverending.
It’s times like this, when the rest of the pickle-eating world is getting itself into a froth about the truest, most authentic version of the pickle, that it pays to take a step back and consider that perhaps a pickle can be, and always has been, something more than just the result of a glut of cucumbers during the summer.
In most Eastern European countries, pickling traditions rarely rely solely on the bounty of one crop—like cucumbers. I remember living in Russia and being plied with all manner of brined vegetables during the winter months, made from the harvest from overproducing dacha gardens in the countryside. These could include pickled mushrooms, tomatoes, sour cherries, and so much more.
Indians, too, have long and complex traditions around pickling. Indian pickles, though they look nothing like their Russian counterparts, are designed to serve the same purpose. They provide an opportunity to give longer life to a fleeting gesture of the season. If a certain kind of mango, berry, or chilli is only available during a certain time of the year, why not try to turn it into something that you can return to and relish at your leisure?
Pickles go by many different names throughout India. Achaar, the Hindi name given to most pickled vegetables, is the one that most people are familiar with. But every region has its own approach to the science of preservation, and along with it, a nomenclature, a signature blend of spices, and a particular technique. In Karnataka, in the south, the word for pickle is uppinakayi.Uppu means salt and kayi is the Kannada word for fruit, so that the name simply points out that the preparation essentially boils down to fruit that has been preserved in salt.
This version of nimbekayi uppinakayi, or lime pickle, relies on first slowly fermenting the limes in a good amount of salt in direct sunlight. One of the great advantages of this kind of solar-powered cooking is that it takes little supervision and the slow effect of time, sun, and ambient beneficial bacteria in the air, help the limes develop a deep, inimitable flavor.
The blend of spices I’ve used here isn’t really traditional, though it is delicious. The fennel adds a faint hint of sweet, licorice flavor to the pickle, and the black mustard adds its dark, earthy heat to the piquant spice of the chilli powder. Try your hand at a blend of spices that you like, and vary the amount of the different spices according to your own taste.
Note: If you’re planning on making your own preserved limes, make sure to allow at least 3–4 weeks for the limes to ferment. Alternately, you can make the pickle using store-bought preserved lemons, in which case make sure to first cut the lemons into bite-sized pieces before proceeding with the recipe.
After your limes are well and truly pickled (you should be able to easily cut them with the side of a spoon), you can begin the quick and painless work of seasoning them.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat just until it begins to shimmer.
Add, all together, the black mustard, fennel, and fenugreek. Cook, stirring often, for 2–3 minutes, or just until the mustard seeds begin to pop and turn grey and the spices become aromatic. Take great care not to burn them, or your pickle will taste bitter.
Next, add the chilli powders and turn the heat to low. Stir the mixture and cook for another 3–4 minutes, or until you can smell the chilli powder. Don’t inhale too deeply—the heat in the chilli powder can be quite volatile.
Add the pickled limes and stir well, coating the segments of citrus liberally with the spice mixture.
Cook for 4–5 minutes, until the spices and the fruit are well combined.
Turn off the heat and, using a rubber spatula, scrape the fruit and the spice mixture into a large, nonreactive, sterilized bottle (a large glass jar with a wide mouth works well).
At this point the pickle is ready to eat. However, if you let it ripen for a couple of days in direct sunlight, covered tightly with a sheet of cheesecloth or with a piece of paper towel tied around the opening of the jar, the spices will have a chance to more fully infuse the fruit with their flavor.
After the pickle has aged to your satisfaction, transfer it to smaller, sterilized jars, close tightly, and store in the refrigerator for upto 6 months.