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Pickles – a metaphor for life itself

Zubin D’ Souza

Sometimes I wonder whether the larger events in our life are planned; a divine super force that has preordained a cycle so that it is in the best interest of the human race or whether we as humans have evolved to such an extent that we have managed to work around all the adversities thrown at us.

Well, some adversities we have definitely worked around. When humans are faced with sunny climes, they have made themselves hats and umbrellas and parasols and sunglasses….but in my opinion (not that my opinions count for much) I think the greatest thing that ever came out of blistering summery regions has to be the art of creating a pickle.

You can walk miles and miles of parched farmland where the recently harvested field, as far as the eye can see, is covered with a wide spread of vegetables, fruit and any other option from nature’s bounty, just lying there in the sun, waiting for that one glorious moment when it can transform into an awesome tasting pickle.

Pickles in India are not restricted just to the original cucumber in brine variety; we have all sorts of vegetables, meats, seafood and for good measure a North East version that includes termites and one from Bihar that has red ants. Both are delicious mind you, like the rest of their ilk but unlike the other run of the mill varieties that I normally come across, these two happen to be a more painful affair because for some reason, ants and termites do not take too kindly to being processed into pickles.

Pickles can have spices and a choice of oils that moisten it and make it plain amazing but more on that a little later.

To me, a pickle has a more personal connect because it originated out of India and like everyone back home, I get more excited and rest on the laurels of an ancient generation with no relation to me whatsoever as compared to going out in the wide world and creating things that future generations may appreciate.

Now although everyone agrees that the first vegetable to be pickled was a cucumber and that cucumbers originated out of India, the actual original pickler of the vegetable into a pickle remains a mystery. Did the Indians pickle the cucumber and carry them on their travels to foreign lands? Or did the Indians carry the seeds of the cucumber to the fertile Tigris valley where sat the seat of the ancient Mesopotamian Empire and did the Mesopotamians (present day Iraqis) do the pickling on their own?

Whatever the history! This took place over 4,000 years ago and since the Mesopotamians were more adept at chiseling pieces of information on blocks of stone and leaving them around for future generations (as opposed to the Indian penchant for artistic depictions of deities and everyday life that excluded pickling cucumbers) we lost out on the opportunity to wag our derrieres at them and say ‘Nyah, nyah! We did it first!’

Pickles are mentioned throughout history. Cleopatra claimed that her extraordinary good looks were the result of a diet rich in pickles (the concept of genetics had not yet been discovered) and the Bible mentions it as well as Shakespeare.

They have travelled on voyages with Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci; they have seen action in war theatres across the globe where they formed part of soldier’s rations and they even have a day and week dedicated to celebrating their existence.

It had fans in Queen Elizabeth I, Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Pacific islanders have huge pickling pits where they ferment stuff if a storm attacks and knocks down their trees. In fact, prior to accepting a marriage proposal for their daughter, the parents inspect the prospective groom’s ‘pits’ to see if he is good marriage material.

Athletes use the brine juice of pickles to combat dehydration and relieve cramps.

Though a pickle in different parts of the world may indicate a sweeping wide range of products, they essentially arise from the same methodology.

The name pickle is derived from the Dutch ‘pekel’ which means brine. Brine is a salt and water solution that was first used to create pickles. A brine, vinegar solution or plain lacto-fermentation was used to create a medium that would prevent the growth of bacteria and thus extend the life of the product for the months when the sun would be scarce and the elements would prevent humans from getting fresh food.

The pickles in India and parts of Asia are slightly different. They contain spices, most of them contain a wide range of fragrant oils and they are so damn creative. They are served alongside a meal as a condiment and sometimes are served with just rice to form the focus of the meal.

Now although we may not be able to claim, solely for technical reasons that we Indians made the world’s first pickle, I think that we can definitely claim that we make the world’s most fragrant and widest range.

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