Batch #1 lime pickle

I have no idea when pickling became an icon of cool. Maybe 2010? All I remember is that recipes and canning instructions were suddenly featured on every slick food site, and restaurants were serving “house” pickles. Kimchi also stormed the U.S. food scene around this time. One thing that I noted during this branch of homesteading is that South Asian pickles never made the front page. It made sense at the time because my experience with this genre was unremarkable. They were always too salty, too tart, unpleasant textures; all around too much. My least favorite Indian pickle was lime pickle. It generally tasted like spicy floor cleaner or, lordissa help me, sweet and spicy floor cleaner.

Many many moons later, I would be offered lime pickle on homemade mathri, a popular flaky biscuit particular to Rajasthan. The presented pickle was not only lime, but had taken on a shade of black during its fermentation process that otherwise indicates “Do not eat.” Professor X and Dr. Mother-in-Law assured me it was delicious. It was also the last of its kind; made by Professor X’s paternal grandmother who passed away a year or so ago and set aside for his homecoming. As culinary traditions tend to go, Dr. Mother-in-Law learned the recipe early on, but did not write it down.

From the picture above, it’s correct to assume that I liked the pickle a great deal. What I didn’t expect when I set forth to put up some pickle was how much of a commitment it would be. The recipe contained in above jars has to sit, and be turned daily, for a month before you can even consider eating it. And, it’s apparently a quick pickle (quickle?).

The breadth and depth of Indian pickle making was also unforeseen. Achar, and its rules, vary by region, state, and even household. Some do whole limes. Others do quarters. Some stuff the masalas into the fruit. Others temper the spices in oil, then add it to the mixture. Older generations prohibit menstruating women from touching the pickle jar. Newer recipes recommend sterilized Mason jars, and even putting it in the oven on the lowest setting every day to simulate sun exposure. Some swear only on earthen vessels covered with a cloth.

There is also a debate about definitions, previously encountered during an attempt to make lemon chicken in Kolkata. Ask for a lime in India, and you’ll be presented with a large, yellowish fruit with bumpy skin that smells like a lemon, but has a distinctive resiny flavor. This is nimbu.  Request a lemon, and you will receive a small, green fruit with smooth skin that also smells like a lemon. This is citron, just like the French word for “lemon,” yet it tastes only vaguely like one. Even with this in mind, searching for recipes online continued to confound with everyone calling it “nimbu achar,” but alternating between “lemon” and “lime” because U.S. markets simply don’t have either nimbu or citron. Perhaps its a matter of personal taste.

After a week of collaborative research, and a Skype call, two missing factors came to light. First, the recipe I sought was one for kala nimbu achar (black lime pickle). Not only does the mix turn black, but it has kala namak (Himalayan black salt) in it. Second, it takes at least twenty years to get to the state of savory voodoo contained in that small jar. This bit of information gave me pause as I did the math. I imagined the pickle riding alongside houseplants and cat carriers across the U.S. I saw myself and Professor X as an elderly couple, finally getting a taste of the pickle but unable to properly chew mathri with dentures or handle spicy food due to aging stomachs. I also saw it permanently camped out somewhere in the apartment; requiring care and feeding like some strange, oozy pet.

We have one more week before Batch One is done. Maybe it will be worth it, and we’ll go in for the long haul with some kala nimbu that we break out like a fine wine for my 60th birthday. Or perhaps I’ll decide, like Dr. Mother-in-Law, to stop wasting limes on fungal growths.