The sweetest of memories are to be found in the pickle jars in your grandma's kitchen. My #AchaarDay story

Cooking for the first time in didu's kitchen. The kitchen where
I would once come looking for aachar. March, 2018

My mother, brother and I had lived in my maternal grandparents' house in Kolkata for about a year after my father passed away. This is when I was ten years old and still new to India. I had spent many weekends and holidays there before that stint and continued to do so after we moved out into our own apartment.

In an age before iPhones and iPads and Netflix and Peppa Pig, my time at their house as a child revolved around what my grandparents did.

I was fascinated by the stories that my late grandfather would tell me, primarily of the second world war and occasionally of the wit of Gopal Bhar, and it is thanks to him that I developed my love for reading and subsequently writing. 

I looked forward to the outings he would take me on. We had our ritual for this. We would walk down to the bus stop from their house. Take a bus to Babu Ghat. From there, the launch to Howrah Station. Dadu had worked in the Indian Railways before he retired and loved the smell of trains. The promises of travel that they held had him in their spell. This was even though he was a 'desk man' and had worked in the library services department at the Railway HQ in New Delhi's Shastri Bhavan, as my grandma would wryly point out, and was not a front of lines man. 

He would buy glasses of apple juice for us from the HPMAC vending machine when we reached. Drinks finished, we would go up to terrace outside the waiting room and look at the Hooghly river and take in the breeze. We would then head down to the station restaurant where he would buy me dosas, idlis and vadas, served on aluminium trays with overflowing chutneys and sambar, before we retraced our path home.

A picture of mini me in my grandparent's house from a time
when I was their only grandchild who lived in the UK then
far away from them. I was probably three when this was taken

My relationship with my grandmother on the other hand centred around her kitchen. She was, and still is, my favourite cook in the family. I was fascinated by everything that she would cook and feed me from her kitchen and boy, was I a fussy eater? 

I still am one, as you probably know!

I still remember vividly that one summer afternoon when I saw didu (my maternal grandmother) get green and unripe mangoes from the market, cut them into pieces and then put them into big and empty Bournvita and Horlicks and Viva (anyone remember that?) glass jars. She then poured in and covered the contents of the jars with mustard oil, salt and spices, and shut their lids.

Once done, she took a jar in each of her hands and gave me another to carry. She walked up the stairs to the chhaat (terrace) and I followed her dutifully holding on to the precious cargo which was almost as big as me. She explained that she was making aachar (pickles) that day and that this was the start of the process. 

In the days that followed, I would go up with her after lunch everyday and she would put the jars in the sun and I would help her with that. We would reverse the routine at dusk when she would get the jars back from the terrace and put them in the landing and shut the door to the terrace.

Then one day she opened a jar after we went up, inspected the contents, looked at me and smiled and said the the pickle was ready. 

"Khaabi," do you want to try some, she asked and I eagerly did so. 

This was my first taste of aachar or pickle. I just loved the raw and clean tanginess which was so resplendent  in each bite of the mango and I was hooked on to Didu's aachar from that day

Didu continued to make her Bengali styled aamer aachar (mango pickle) every summer. In winter she made one with carrots and peas and cauliflowers using a recipe which she had learnt from her Punjabi neighbours in Delhi. 

She would send the pickles to the apartment my mother had got for us and where my grandparents would come to look after my little brother and me every evening till my mother returned from work. 

The aachar became a constant fixture in our kitchen cupboards through my growing up days.

Soon I became a gawky and lanky teenager and was no longer the chubby kid who had helped didu make her aachar. A few years later, college done, I was a B-School student, and soon after that, it was time for me to leave the city and head to Mumbai to start my life as a cog in the wheel in the world of commerce. 

I still looked forward to having didu's aachar on holidays back to Kolkata even after I had moved out. Didu would offer to send her aachar with me to Kolkata but my mother said that it would mess up my clothes and that it is not auspicious to travel with pickles in ones luggage. So I never did.

Now didu is 90 and can barely walk without a walker, let alone climb the stairs. Dadu is no more. The first floor terrace is gone too as more floors have been added to their house. 

There's no aachar in her kitchen when I visit didu now. Just memories of them.

Then one day, when I visited her during a recent trip to Kolkata, didu welcomed me with a smile and a small Jharna Ghee glass bottle which I had given her on my previous trip and which seemed to now contain something other than ghee.

"I have made lemon pickles but sunned them in the verandah and not the terrace in this bottle. Khaabi?"

I did try them of course and while I am more a mango pickle person, didu's lebur achaar (lime pickle) tasted divine to me that afternoon as my didu and I made fresh memories together.

Most tickled to see her little grandson cook instead of eat, March 2018
I wrote this post as part of the #AchaarDay celebrations organised by Rushina Munshaw Ghildayal as a part of her Indian Food Observance day initiatives. I do not have any pictures of the aachar (we pronounce it differently in Bengali compared to achaar in Hindi) didu used to make as they belonged to the pre-phone camera era. However, I did cook with her for the first time in her kitchen recently for a project I was working on. I have a shared a couple of pictures from that day here, including one of the two of us in kitchen where she would once make and keep her aachar.

Do click on this link if you want to see me cooking under didu's supervision in her kitchen in the video. The dish in question is the lau chingri of the Gopal Bhaar story fame and is not an achaar. We will make that the next time perhaps. Sounds like a plan?

Would love to hear of any memories that you might have around pickles, especially if it centres around your grandma's kitchen. Please share them with me if you do and add the hash tag #AacharDay if you do.

Photo credits: Amritaasha Charla