By Nishi Pulugurtha
May is hot. May is peak summer – scorching and sweltering. May is also pickle time for Telugus all over the world. It is also nostalgia time for Telugus living away from Andhra Pradesh and Telengana. Appagaru mostly lived outside what used to be Andhra Pradesh, in Orissa and later in Bengal. Home, for him, was always Calcutta. It was the same for my mother too. We did have very close links with folks back in Kakinada and Hyderabad and elsewhere, we still do. But, Calcutta/ Kolkata has always been home.
One of the troubles of living far away from home was finding the right ingredients and equipment needed for Telugu cuisine. A Telugu kitchen will always need coffee, and the grinding stone for making fluffy idlis and crisp dosas. When Amma set up home in Calcutta, her kitchen did not have the grinding stone and it was left to my uncle to get one for her, all the way from Kakinada. Things were much different in the Calcutta of the 70s. Coffee powder, not the instant kind, but the one needed for filter coffee, was available only in a few shops – in Metro Gali at Esplanade, a small shop tucked in Dacres Lane and in Lake Market. Today, of course, things are much different. Most of the things needed in a Telugu kitchen are available much easily.
Summer was the time when my parents got ready to make pickles. Hot, tangy, red mango pickles that would last a year. There were different kinds of such mango pickles that one could make. My parents made two types mostly – avakai and magai. Years of living in Calcutta had taught Amma the right place to buy all the needed ingredients. The raw mangoes had to be of a particular kind and real sour, firm and green, with a perfectly formed seed. Not just that; they had to be chopped up into pieces of a particular size for avakai. I remember that in the 70s, 80s and well into the 90s, Amma used to travel to central Calcutta, to Burra Bazar to get them. Once they were home, the four of us – my parents, my sister and I would spread the pieces on an old, clean, cotton sari and then painstakingly wipe each mango piece clean. Pickle making for Telugus, no matter where they are, has always been a family affair. Even before the raw mango pieces would be home, my parents would get all the spices needed for the pickle. They were not available in local shops. They had to be the best and it was either shops in Burra Bazar or Lake Market where one could get the best ones.
After all the pieces would be wiped clean, a huge container would be dried and cleaned and readied for the mixing of the pickle. The spices, all in the correct proportions would be added by Amma, and Appagaru would be ready with the mixing spoon, all heated up, even a small amount of moisture would spoil the pickle. We used to be asked to leave the room, as all the spices might cause us to sneeze and then Appagaru would begin mixing the spices, mango pieces, salt and oil under the watchful eyes of Amma.
Huge ceramic containers, white and brown, cleaned, dried were kept close by. One of the most important ingredients in the pickle was red chili powder and mustard powder. It is this mustard powder added to the pickle that gives it its name – avakai (avalu, telugu for mustard seeds). Fenugreek seeds were powdered and added too. All of the ingredients were then mixed and generous quantities of oil were added. I remember my father struggling to mix them all, such was the quantity. The right amount of salt too. Oh yes, whole garlic was added to this. These garlic pods once they had soaked in all the spices and oil tasted heavenly in the pickle and added further flavour. All the mixing done, both of them transferred it all into jars to be stored. A layer of oil floating on the top could be seen acting as a preservative. The jars were covered with cloth that was tied securely at the neck and then the lids put on. A smaller quantity of the pickle would be kept in a container for consumption. The bigger jars were not be touched. Utmost care had to be taken so that the pickle remained good for a year.
The freshly prepared pickle soon reached our plates and tummies. However, Amma always had a rider – only a little of it was to be had, just to taste it. It could otherwise create havoc with our stomachs. Moreover the mango pieces needed to take in all the spices and oil and get soft and be just the right taste and texture. The best way to have it, as with all such pickles is to mix them with hot rice and to be had with a raw onion, or maybe some curd or even some thick cream. Avakai annam – avakai with rice is comfort food.
Making magai was a bit more complicated. The spices are more or less the same only that mustard powder is not needed. Neither is the garlic. The raw mangoes had to be peeled and this was once again a family affair – Amma cut the mangoes into thin, long pieces. They were put in a container and then salt and turmeric were added and mixed well. After about three days, the mango pieces were squeezed and put out to dry in the hot summer sun. The juices that oozed out due to the salt being added was put out to dry too. The raw and dried mango pieces tasted just delicious. Once they were nice and dry, spices were mixed and it was stored away to last for a year. There was often a problem though; summers in Calcutta saw frequent Norwesters and this disturbed the drying process. My sister and I joked about this often and when it would get too hot we would tell Amma to ready mangoes for drying – we were sure the rain gods would oblige us soon and it would get cooler.
These days we do not make any pickle at home. Appagaru is not around anymore and Amma is not in state to make them. However, we do get our supply of pickles – not from shops where they are available. The readymade ones are a poor substitute. Aunts and cousins see to it that we do not miss all updates relating to the pickle season and pickles. They also ensure we get our pickle supply every year. This year avakai arrived a week ago by courier – my cousin, Valli, made sure we get it fresh. This morning, my aunt, Amma’s sister, called up saying she had prepared magai and a couple of other types, menthi avakai and thokkudu pachadi, all made from raw mangoes. She said she is on the lookout on how to send it to us. The courier is way too expensive, she said. She is travelling to Vizag next week and she will see to it that the pickles, all packed wonderfully, are handed over to my uncle at Kakinada. My uncle is planning a holiday to Shillong and enroute he will stop by at Kolkata to see my mother and that is how the pickles are going to travel this time. They do find ways and means of reaching me and my sister each year. This year, surely, is to be no different.
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University and Rabindra Bharati University. Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film. She is a creative writer and writes on travel, Alzheimer’s Disease, film, short stories and poetry. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House and Setu. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019).
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