I can’t have enough pickles it seems; the previous post too was on pickling. Pickling is cool (again) and you are likely to see a lot of talk about them. Lacto-fermentation is trending. Me, I’ve always loved a good pickle and the process of making a perishable vegetable last longer. Pickles are a great way to use the abundance from your garden where the entire crop of any one kind tends to ripen all at the same time.
Monjji anchaar, (L) Feb 2016, (R) 2018. Oh, how the monkeys have ruined my once-lush palms!
There is so much nostalgia associated with many seasonal pickles that the mere act of making one brings all those childhood memories flooding back. Kohlrabi, monjji to Kashmiris, is much more than just any vegetable to them. I am not exaggerating when I say that it is a reminder of our homeland, our homes with the kitchen gardens, our community, our market streets, especially now when we have all been removed from it. As for all people who have known exile, the longing for things that represent that homeland only gets deeper. Monjji anchar (kohlrabi pickle) might once have been that pickle found in every kitchen cupboard in Kashmir, but today, for many of us, it is a lot more.
As in desserts, the Kashmiri Pandit cuisine is pretty limited in its repertoire of pickles. We have just one recipe for pickling, only the vegetables get swapped. You may use kohlrabi or cauliflower. If you are feeling very rebellious you could go all out and use onions.
Two years back, in Srinagar for work, I went searching for the house of my childhood. Find it I did, despite the 25 years away. That bay-window just below the ugly dish-antennae, that’s the dabb off what was once my grandfather’s room. I’ve spent so many happy summers there.
The thing is I see monjji anchar and I immediately picture two big stoneware jars sunning in the dabb off my grandfather’s first floor room in our house in Srinagar. One contained, no prizes for guessing, monjji anchar. The other held onions pickled in exactly the same manner. My aunt would leave the jars there till the pickle was mature. Once ready, the pickles were likely moved downstairs into the kitchen. But I wouldn’t know anything about that. I only know about their time in the balcony in the summer sun. Picture me and my younger sister, idle summer days, a sunny balcony, and jars of pickle in that balcony. We would dip our hands into the jar and eat the crunchy, mildly spiced onions and watch the world go by on the street below. Pickles are addictive; you can’t eat one piece and say, “Enough!” We would lick our fingers “clean” and reach back into the jar for more! I still wonder how we never got a yelling, or whether the pickle – what was left of it – ever spoiled. Maybe it did and my aunt just blamed it on her poor pickling skills! A very fond memory indeed.
All these memories came flooding back last week with one look at the giant kollrabi that Dad had just pulled out of his patch. I knew I needed to pickle me some. Just one was enough since those babies weighed in at over a kilo each! Last year I pickled just the stout stem-ends of the leaves and was pretty pleased with the results. The last few remaining pieces are still crunchy. This Sunday I made the pickle again, this time using the entire kohlrabi.
As an ode to that onion pickle of my childhood, I added in a couple of onions – purists may leave them out. Here’s the recipe.
Top L – this year’s batch: Top R – last year’s batch with just the stem-ends and onions, and Bottom – the conventional batch from the year before that.
1 kilo (about 2 lbs) kohlrabi, greens and all
2 red onions, peeled and sliced thick (optional)
15-20gms whole coriander seeds
25gms rai seeds (a variety of mustard with tiny seeds used primarily for pickling in N India)
20gms Kashmiri chilli (cayenne) powder
10gms hot chilli powder (Rajasthani or Guntur chillies)
250ml mustard oil
1/4 tsp hing
To prepare the kohlrani take a thick slice off the top with the greens attached. Trim off the remaining leaves. Tail to remove the root end. Rinse the kohlrabi and the leaves to wash off dirt. Do not peel the kohlrabi. Cut the head into large dice (about 2x2x1 cm). If the leaves are very big, as mine were, snap them into half. Spread the prepped vegetables on a cotton towel and leave to dry in the shade for a day or overnight.
Lightly crush the coriander and mustard seeds in a pestle and mortar. Traditionally, they are left whole. Take all the spices and salt in a large non-reactive (glass or steel) vessel. Add mustard oil. Add the prepped kohlrabi and mix it well. Leave the mix for a few hours to allow the salt to draw some of the water out and create a spicy brine.
Transfer to a clean glass jar or ceramic crock. Press the vegetables down so that there is a layer of oil on top. This layer is what creates a seal and prevents the vegetables from coming in contact with oxygen. This anaerobic, acidic environment is the perfect medium for the good bacteria to thrive; the bad ones need oxygen. It is not necessary to keep the jar in the sun but warmer temperature will quicken the process. Too strong a sun will also soften the pickle. What you are after is a nice crunch that lasts.
Make sure to stir and mix the pickle once every day for a week. This will ensure the spices, and more importantly the salt, is evenly distributed which will bring fermentation to a halt. If you find the pickle is bubbling away add more salt to create a concentrated brine that will stop all bacteria in their track. Yes, Indian pickles are primarily salt-cured, with only a little fermentation at the start to bring in some acid for a good tang. [If you’d like to make a low-salt pickle you may want to refrigerate it.] Let the pickle cure for 2-4 weeks and enjoy. It pairs beautifully with khichdi.
Variations: Use cauliflower (broken into large florets) or sliced onions instead of kohlrabi.