Mangoes, pickles, and a home lost
The Khanapur house had three mango trees. Against the red brick exterior of the house, the mature green trees offered a majestic and warm welcome as they slowly appeared in sight on the bumpy, dusty drive to the house at the fag end of a 12 hour journey.
At the entrance, on the corner of the gate, was an Alphonso variant. On most days, this tall tree would be covered in red from the dirt road that it overlooked. Khanapur is a dusty old town, and in those days, tarred roads were very few. The inner lanes were always covered in mud and one’s city cotton pajamas were perpetually red heeled, and had to be discarded after the holidays. The almost-Alphonso was a weakling—perhaps it was very old; it looked tired to me, its foliage sparse and unwilling. Passersby—kids, adults, and monkeys alike—would eye the fruit and make their afternoon assaults at the tree while the household napped. I have almost no memory of seeing any mangoes on the façade of the tree. Whatever little we were lucky to find, was eaten quickly and without much theatre.
Toward the back of the house, tucked away from public sight, was the Paayri. A local variety of very fibrous fruit, the Paayri, to me, is the mango of the Konkan coast. It has a heady, floral aroma that spells summer. Warm, intoxicating, sweet, tart—all at once. Unlike the Aplphonso, the Paayri is a plumper fruit, and can easily be considered the country cousin thanks to its green-black exterior, which even when fully ripe, barely turns a few shades of greenish yellow as opposed to the rich sunshine orange of the Alphonso. Easily identifiable by its pointed bottom, the Paayri mango stands apart, grinning like a proud farmer of indigenous produce—imperfect appearances notwithstanding.
Mango harvesters were hired on appointed days to bring down the loot—the mangoes had to be still green but grown to their full size, a pale, powdery crimson creeping upon their stems. Any riper, and they would be difficult to bring down without pulping them in the bargain. Kaka, ever the engineer, had crafted a special bucket for the express purpose of harvesting the mangoes without causing them much physical damage. A plastic bucket lined with thick jute. A thin, sharp razor firmly attached across a chord of the circular mouth of the bucket. A long bamboo stick screwed on as a handle. The mango harvester climbed on to the closest possible branches and locked the unsuspecting fruit in the bucket, its stem at a perfect angle from the razor. One swift pull, and the mangoes fell in the bucket with a soft thud and the aroma of the mango sap filled the warm air. Our job as kids, was to collect the mangoes and take them up to the open hall upstairs, where they would have to be lined like obedient children being tucked in their beds of jute and hay, a stray onion between them to help with the ripening. Every mealtime, we would go upstairs to pick the ones that were ready to be eaten. They would, invariably, be pulped into a humongous utensil, a few blobs of fibrous fruit left as is (we don’t like our Aamras smooth), seasoned with a little salt, a tiny bit of sugar, and a splash of milk. This would then be devoured with hot Ghadichi Poli (silken laminated chapatis) slathered with homemade ghee. Simple times, those. All the plucking and choosing and climbing and watching and eating was entertainment enough—and all of it revolved around just a tree!
The most dramatic of them all, though, was the one in the front lawn—it was a large one, as tall as it was wide. It stood just outside the kitchen window, its primary branches making perfect seats for us children to perch on and wave to the adults inside as they sipped their coffee or cleaned the vegetables or debated over the newspaper at the dining table. I remember the rough crevices of its bark as I sat on the lowest “V” formation on the branches (I’ve always been afraid of heights). Sometimes, I would take a book there to read. I once wrote a poem there, too—using an old, yellowed notepad and one of Maushi’s freshly sharpened Natraj pencils. I remember feeling a bit uncomfortable and wondering why people made so much about sitting in an uncomfortable tree when they could be sitting in a cushioned chair inside. But if I could sit in that inadequate V of the mango tree today, I would give anything for it.
But, I digress. This majestic, photogenic tree, was also very fertile. It would yield mangoes in large numbers—hundreds on just one tree! The humongous sized fruit, a cousin of the Rajapuri variety, was heavy. The upper branches hung over the terrace and it would be so easy to simply climb to the terrace and pluck the fruit—you would be spoilt for choice because the fruit hung low with its weight and in confusing abundance! But. (There was a huge but.) This mango could only be consumed raw. If one allowed it to ripen, it would rot. Little worms would crawl out of the ripe mango if you let it turn even the faintest shade of yellow. I wonder what disease ailed the tree. I wonder what lesson it tried to teach us.
The fact is, we never figured it out apart from making sure we harvested the green, firm, unripe fruit in time. It made the most delectable pickles because its flesh was firm and tart. Most of the mangoes were immediately distributed to friends of my aunt and uncle in town. At home, we ate it simply seasoned with salt and red chili powder—a casual snack for when we sat on the steps at the entrance, got our hair braided or aimlessly watched the world go by. My very talented aunt would make a few different kinds of jams and preserves from it—the Gulamba (large chunks of peeled unripe mango cooked in a jaggery syrup) being my favourite. If my mum, gran and great grandmother were also visiting, the women would experiment with a plethora of pickle recipes—sweet, sour, hot, spiced, with an oil tempering, without—you name it! These lasted the year, and I have such fond memories of large glass jars in various shapes with plastic lids, ceramic barnis with wooden or ceramic lids being filled and lined up in the dark store room adjacent to the kitchen after their few days on the sunny window sill. I was too young to venture into pickle territory then, but one pickle stood out.
Mothi Aai’s Mohoricha Loncha—my great grandmother’s “mustard” pickle. Despite its misleading name, the primary ingredient was the unripe mango. The christening was so because of the copious amount of whisked mustard that gave the pickle a decidedly pungent flavor. In our family, it is considered the rite of passage pickle because it is the first pickle introduced to children when they are old enough. It is eaten with curd-rice, parathas, and the usual suspects, but also with a bowl of piping hot sheera—an unusual combination but one that works because the sharp sweet-sour-pungent pickle cuts through the intense, lactose, nutty sweet richness of the sheera.
So, when Rushina invited me to participate in her ground event for #AamAchaarDay (a celebration day in honour of Indian pickling traditions), I knew exactly what recipe I wanted to make. At the APB Cook Studio, in the company of friends and wise old women, who have been making pickles for generations and have learned the craft from their mothers and grandmothers, I felt a little like I was back in Maushi’s spacious, sunny kitchen, perched on a chair at the round table as the women of the house salted and brined, spiced and filled bottles of Achaar and made memories for us kids to find comfort in, so many decades later.
I first documented this recipe for The Gore Family Cookbook; I am reproducing it here:
Mothi Aai’s Mohoricha Loncha
This recipe is a staple in the Gore kitchen, and children are often initiated into pickle appreciation with this sweet-sour-pungent pickle. Long train journeys were made bearable armed with dabbas of curd rice and dollops of Mohoricha loncha. Look for Totapuri or Rajapuri mangoes so you can control the quantity of jaggery, and use good quality Kashmiri red chili powder for that vibrant color.
- 3 and ½ cups raw mango, peeled and diced
- 1 heaped cup chopped jaggery (more if you use very sour mangoes)
- 3 tablespoons ground yellow mustard seeds
- 1 and ½ teaspoons ground fenugreek (methi) seeds
- 1 heaped teaspoon asafetida (hing)
- 1 and ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 heaped teaspoon freshly ground coriander seed powder
- 3 tablespoons Kashmiri red chili powder
- 3 tablespoons table salt
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- ¾ cup water, boiled and cooled completely
- Place the chopped mango in a large nonreactive bowl made of glass or ceramic. Add the salt and combine. Leave aside while you prepare the other ingredients.
- In another bowl, place the jaggery and ground mustard and tip in the boiled and cooled water. Using a whisk or wooden spoon, mix vigorously until almost all the jaggery melts and the mustard appears frothy.
- In a third bowl, place the ground methi seeds, asafetida, turmeric powder, coriander seed powder, and red chili powder and mix to combine. Heat the oil over high heat and add to the spices. Mix thoroughly and add to the chopped mangoes. Tip in the jaggery and mustard mixture and mix well. Cover the bowl well and leave it for a few hours for the flavors to mingle and for the salt and jaggery to be completely dissolved.
- Check for sweetness/saltiness and adjust before filling into jars. Refrigerate if you live in warm and humid climates.