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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  The secret of a good pickle

The secret of a good pickle

A neighbourhood aunty spills the beans after a few jasmine martinis; the steeping process is the key

The Karuveppilai Martini.Premium
The Karuveppilai Martini.

It was while sipping the Karuveppilai Martini at the Vivanta by Taj—Connemara in Chennai that I figured out how to seduce Aunty Stella into spilling her recipe secrets. Stella isn’t really my aunt; she is a neighbourhood aunty. Her real name is Seethalakshmi Ambujakshi.

You can understand why people in Jamaica, where her husband spent most of his career, decided to call her Stella-darlin’, with that lilting island trill.

Like many Indians who live in faraway lands, Aunty Stella cooked every time she was homesick. And what she specialized in was pickles. Shrimp pickles, mango pickles of various kinds, gooseberry, tomato, garlic, roots, tubers, you name it and Stella could pickle it. She would not share her recipes though. At 80, she was old school.

“You want my recipes? You got to pry it out of my cold dead hands," she would say.

We—her extended family and friends—tried many things to get her to spill her secrets. Some enterprising nieces gave her a spice box with pre-measured amounts of spices to see how much she used while making a dish. Stella wisened up to their wily ways quickly and soon started travelling with her own spice box, keeping its contents locked. Getting Stella’s recipes became a running dare within the family; an unofficial bet, with the stakes growing higher each year.

This time, in Chennai, I decided that it was do or die. And what I decided to do was to get her drunk. Stella, a lifelong teetotaller, was going to drink several glasses of karuveppilai (curry leaf), mace and jasmine cocktails with Chettinad food at the Raintree restaurant. The curry leaves would mask the flavour of the liquor. She would think she was drinking a mocktail, as she usually did. Along the way, I would pump her for information.

I began smoothly—like the drink. I knew I had to throw her off the scent. So I discussed the scent of summer drinks. “I love a well-constructed cocktail," I said, sipping my jasmine martini and feeling a little shaken but not necessarily stirred. “The problem is that I try to make cocktails healthy, which, you could argue, is an oxymoron. For example, I coat the rim of the glass with black salt because it is healthier than normal salt. This changes the taste of the margarita or Bloody Mary."

Stella nodded, chewing on some spicy stew. Take a sip of your drink, I said encouragingly. It will balance the heat of the food.

“Why not use asafoetida instead of black salt? After all, heeng is the healthiest of spices," she said.

I smiled to myself. This was going to be as easy as getting goop out of a baby.

Stella was getting involved with the recipe, almost in spite of herself. I would trick her into thinking that she was helping me construct a perfect cocktail. Through it, I would get her views on proportion, which, after all, is the secret to great food and drink, be it a pickle or a pina colada. With every glass, Stella would become more expansive. She would invite me to be her heir apparent in the pickling business. “Stella & Shoba: the Pickle Queens of South India". I could almost see the signboard.

The waiter came to inquire if we wanted a refill. Stella began quizzing him on the flavour profiles of the drink. How did they get the jasmine smell in the drink? she asked. He said that they steeped Madurai jasmine flowers in sugar syrup till the flowers released their scent. The same applied to curry leaves. This then is the beauty of the summer cocktail. If you have good liquor, you can add pretty much anything to give it some pizzazz. And what Stella decided to add was heeng, arguably the Indian spice with the most pungent smell. Well, she demanded belligerently, if truffles are a delicacy in Italy and stinky cheese a delicacy in France, why not asafoetida in India?

As the evening progressed, my plan went beautifully. Stella leaned back and became languid. She giggled a lot and gazed at the full moon. She quizzed me about my children and told me about her grandchildren. And she told me that the secret of a great pickle was the steeping process. Just like the jasmine flowers were steeped in sugar syrup, good pickles required brine and space in the sun in order to release their flavours. Everything mattered. Old-fashioned pickle jars were the best because they distributed the heat from the outside evenly into all parts of the pickled vegetables or fruits. You had to shake the pickle jar every day in the beginning and every other day later on, just as champagne bottles were turned slowly: remuage, as the French say it. “In the end, it becomes like nectar," said Stella. “A perfect combination of tastes exploding in your mouth." Her eyes twinkled. “Just like the vodka in this jasmine martini that you are passing off to me as a mocktail."

Turns out that Aunty Stella had learnt to imbibe liquor in her old age. She was partial to gin and tonic—“the quinine helps my knees," she said—but she was cool with a martini too, either shaken or stirred.

As for the pickle recipes, she gave some to me. Pity I cannot reveal them here; or ever.

Shoba Narayan is experimenting with a heeng-and-turmeric mojito.

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Published: 01 Apr 2016, 10:24 PM IST
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