I grew up thinking my grandmas made the best aavakai in the world. Years later, I realised that it is indeed the case!
It goes without saying – our grandmas made the bestest food ever. There were several reasons behind it. They had the most wonderful ingredients at hand. The earth was much cleaner – lesser atmospheric pollution and stronger and more nutrient-rich soil led to tastier crops. Their overall food growing and making wisdom ranged from procuring fresh crops from the fields to appropriate cooking, serving, and storing -- all following a naturally clean, healthy, earth-friendly, community-friendly approach that maintained the purity and satwik quality of the food.
In fact, it surprises me today when I realize, the way my grandfather and his peers farmed their lands all those years back, they were mindful in protecting the fertility of the land, the wellbeing of the natural fauna and flora, and in large, caring for the planet. They might not have had fancy educations, but they had the wisdom, an understanding and respect for nature, and a knowledge of farming that came to them naturally. They would grow crops that were suitable to the environment and the season, and practiced crop rotation to ensure the soil retained its fertility. Invariably, the crop would be nourishing to the body as well as be healthy for the environment.
Even while staying in specific communities abroad, I witnessed that heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruits were grown in one’s own gardens or farms or would be procured directly from local farms.
What started with good food, and made with generous sprinklings of love and fondness, could only give you the best. It’s no big deal then that I associated my maternal grandma with the best aavakai, maagai and ulliaavakai and my paternal grandma for top-class enduaavakai, allam pachadi, karveppaku pacchadi and kothimeer pachadi.
When my mom started making the amazing usiri kaaya pachadi and lemon pachadi years later, learning these recipes from her friends and family, it simply complimented the pickle basket. Life couldn’t get any better for me – because not only did I learn firsthand from them, I inherited their secrets and tips, as wella s the family tradition of pickle-making.
Summer saw the annual ritual of making delicious pickles..
Summer was mostly a melee of relatives - grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts meeting up at our ‘native place’ to celebrate the holiday season. And a melee of ingredients, delicious fruits and vegetables, herbs and pungent spices that would go into making all the traditional food we ate. And not to talk of those aavakais!
..And then pickle making commenced
What a fuss it would be to sit together with the flock of other women in the sunbathed courtyards or under a shady tree, post elaborate lunch sessions, talking endlessly about a myriad other things, and also surveying and commenting on the raw mangoes at hand. The old ladies would be turning each mango around to check for blemishes and scars, setting it aside or placing it in the “OK” basket.
Different varieties of these raw and emerald mangoes would go into making different kinds of pickles. For example, the thella gulaabi and hydersaibu would go into making the aavakai but kothapillikobbari and pedda rasaalu would be more fit for making the maagai.
And then the peeling and the chopping!
We children had an important role to play in the peeling of these massive amounts of mangoes. We would be given flat seashells (alchippas), which we would rub on the ground to sharpen, converting them into natural peelers! And then would start the task of peeling, which was delightfully accepted and playfully executed!
Then came the paraphernalia around procuring the right chilies, the right mustard, the right fenugreek, sesame oil, and other spices. Each family would be using a simple yet secret ingredient or a different proportion which would render the taste or aroma or any other characteristic of the pickle different from the others in the community. Grandma insisted on getting the chili powder from one particular vendor for that authentic colour and flavour.
Mostly, the eldest in the family would have the authority to mix the ingredients and make the pickle, and women took pride in being known for their aavakai!
Once made in the summer, these pickles lasted the whole year, so storing them well was equally important. Mixing and storing of the pickle had to be done in special utensils and with specific tools. To prevent oxidation of metal, no metallic utensils but only trusted porcelain jars (jaadis) would be used in the pickle making process. We were taught what happens if we use damp hands or dirty hands in pickles and were forbidden to touch the jaadis.
Pickle-making at Vibrant Living..
With such a strong background in food making and processing, I was only too skeptical about making my own aavakai when the time came. The ingredients, which are the gems of the process, were simply not available, I thought. It took me a fairly long time to convince myself that the perfect aavakai can still be made.
Then I started speaking to the farmers and finally managed to procure mangoes grown organically, following a sustainable approach. Same goes for the other ingredients. As you know, at Vibrant Living, we encourage traditional agricultural methods. Foods grown using traditional methods is more nourishing and tastier and the best part is, it helps lower our carbon footprint and is a lesser load to the planet.
When it comes to mixing the aavakai, my Mom does the honours. We maintain the custom of having the eldest female in the family doing the honours of mixing the aavakai.
Aavakais are a beautiful example of slow cooked food. They are delicious and, in moderation, nutritious in their own right. And today, we have access to the same old, slow-food treasure, in a complete and thorough mostly organic avatar!
You can make it at home too. The list of ingredients is small so simply ensure that you pick all the right ingredients. The mangoes, the fenugreek, the mustard seeds, the garlic, the chili powder – all should be from the best organic quality. Choose Himalayan rock salts and cold pressed oils only. That’s how we make aavakais in Vibrant Living – and it helps me recreate my grandma’s magic.
Write to me if you want to join our summer sessions on aavakai making. We’ll send you notifications when we hold the sessions. It takes only the best and authentic ingredients and a sheer little magic to produce the same delectable recipes that our grandmas made. If eaten in moderation and with whole grains and millets, pickles will tantalize you without derailing a healthy, tasty and sustainable diet plan. And it keeps our traditions alive.