My grandmother’s lime pickles are like liquid gold, tawny from turmeric, burning and salted and sweet and tangy, velvety on the lips and tongue. They are delicious and addictive, a treasure you want to keep licking from a spoon, long after your stomach tells you to stop.
In Chennai, I wake to the harsh sound of street vendors shouting outside my grandmother’s apartment, selling milk and fresh vegetables. The mornings smell like mud, cows, smoke from incense, marigolds, and hibiscus. Every meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, ended with curd rice–essentially yogurt mixed with warm, fragrant basmati rice–and lime pickle. The days are passed reading novels; I wish I could say I spend my visits to India talking with my grandmother, but I cannot speak much Tamil, and she speaks only a little English. Still, we try to break the barrier.
Years ago, I managed to take her oral history with the help of my mother and aunt. By taking down her words, I hoped to preserve her memory of life as a young woman on a tea estate, a life that seemed completely foreign to my own in the United States. This is that history.
More than sixty-five years ago, when she was sixteen years old, my grandmother married a widower with four children. The two of them went on to produce four children of their own, including my mother. For part of my mother’s childhood, her father was a doctor at a lush, verdant Nilgiri tea estate in the deep south of India. They kept several animals as pets, not quite a menagerie, but more than I can imagine caring for: rabbits, a mynah bird, a cat, a dog.
As my grandmother has recounted it to me, the more mundane aspects of life at the tea plantation were punctuated by instances of savagery. One winter, a tiger broke into a building where the pets were, knocking a pumpkin off a shelf and killing one of the rabbits.
During the winters, my grandmother stocked the pantry with elumichampazham urugai, which loosely translated means “lime pickle.” Limes and lemons are interchangeable in the Tamil language. There are more varieties and ways of preserving limes than there are states in India, which is to say more than twenty-eight.
After failing to make me understand a story about my aunt eating camphor as a baby, my grandmother wearied. She gave up on my oral history project and went to the kitchen to make lime pickle. That morning she had purchased ripe limes from one of the street vendors. These limes were closer in size and color to key limes, smaller than the sweet Meyer lemons on the tree in my backyard in California, which I use for everything from limoncello to lemon cupcakes to lime pickle.
Some recipes call for leaving the limes in the sun to soften, but my grandmother boiled the ripe limes until they were soft. When they were cool, she placed them on the concrete counters of her tiny kitchen to chop into chunks. I can remember her dry brown wrists, little and quick like a sparrow, as she cut the limes and put them, overflowing, into a glass jar. Then she mixed them in their own juices with oil and antimicrobial spices like mustard seeds.
Theoretically, lime pickle could keep for a year, but in practice, it never lasts that long. At every visit, I dig into the spicy soft goo with a spoon—a dry spoon because water can spoil the shelf life—always eating more with my curd rice than I planned. We eat from stainless steel thali plates; each plate is physically divided into four compartments. My grandmother spoons curds onto the warm rice heaped in the main compartment. I put a dollop of the lime pickle in one of the other compartments, usually more than one dollop.
The lime pickle my grandmother makes tastes different from the one we eat at home in Palo Alto. My mother buys a mass-produced lime pickle at one of the many Indian markets on El Camino Avenue, the major thoroughfare through Silicon Valley. These are pickled limes made garish and glossy red like a wound with more chili powder and more heat than my grandmother uses in her recipe.
And how do you get rid of the heat? The heat in the pickle is supposed to be absorbed by the curds. Dairy has a cooling effect. Nonetheless, I still drink tumblers of water with lime pickle, hoping each time that the chemistry will be different, that the water will not carry the hot oil around the entirety of my mouth, but cool it instead.
In Chennai, I drink water that has been boiled and then chilled in the refrigerator. It gives the flavor of rice a metallic, mineral quality. All of the sodas are Fanta, not Coca Cola or Dr. Pepper or Mr. Pibb. Manufactured for an Indian palate, they taste different, oddly sweeter than sodas from home. Sometimes I drink tea after a meal and the milk in the tea erases the taste of the pickle.
Pickled lime sits more strangely in the American palate than other acquired tastes like black coffee or scotch. It doesn’t taste comparable to anything else at Indian restaurants, not even the chutneys to which it is related, and the complexity of its flavor, its very softness on the tongue, can be intimidating rather than rewarding. I recently discovered on an American food blog, however, that lime pickle also tastes good eaten with sautéed chard, a use to which Indians would never put it.
The word “pickle” was first recorded in 1707. It probably stems from pekel “pickle, brine,” from a Low German root, and in Britain it referred to a sauce served with meat or fowl. In spite of the word’s European etymology, the first instances of pickling as an act is thought to have emerged in 2030 BC in ancient Mesopotamia, using cucumbers native to India. Food spoils when microorganisms are supplied with sufficient oxygen to survive.
In pickling, the lemons are preserved from the ravages of time through anaerobic fermentation, which works by adding the acid from the lemon itself, as well as sufficient oil to exclude oxygen. Flavors like lemon, fenugreek, mustard, and chili blend with the harmonizing effect of asafetida to form a mélange that can survive longer than the lemon could alone, well into the future.
At the end of the magical realist novel about India’s independence, Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s protagonist Saleem Sinai opens a pickle factory that uses recipes from older times. He ruminates on “the chutnification of history; the grand hope of the pickling of time.” Rushdie refers to each chapter as a pickle, the flavors of one food melding with the flavors of another, a metaphor for both the preservation of memory and Indian culture itself, mixing both colonial and indigenous traditions.
Treated today as a hipster fad, the butt of a genius Portlandia joke, traditional pickling is an act as radical as DIY punk: an alchemical effort to preserve the freshness of a specific moment in time, not through modern chemicals, but through the interaction of limes with themselves. Pickling, the interaction of a thing with itself, is how memory works.
I remember the winter in Chennai under the low light of my grandmother’s apartment, trying to extract an oral history, the sky more white than blue through the window, each of us trying to bridge a vast gap in time and space to understand the other and not quite reaching the other. I manage to forget that I was bored most of that winter, having run out of British novels, and only reacquaint myself with this fact through a review of some email I sent a friend. And then other memories come to turn the sky bluer, that call up the smell of rain and mud, that make me remember the personal history my grandmother gave me as quaint and sweet, and not savage, and the old apartment, which has been sold because of my grandmother’s poor health turns into a fantastic space, a paradise lost, now that I will never be there again. But the lime pickle recipe she passed along to my mother and me! I can make it over and over again, and each time call up a memory of my grandmother.
Recipe for Lime Pickle
In a large pot, boil a gallon of water. Add 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric and 8-10 limes or lemons. Add a couple of teaspoons of salt. Boil until the lemon skins feel soft to touch. Remove from heat and cool.
Cut each lime into bite-sized pieces. Remove any seeds, but don’t lose the liquid that oozes out of the lemon. Add the leftover liquid to the mix.
In a small pot, heat half a cup of oil. Add 1 teaspoon of mustard seeds and 1/2 teaspoon of fenugreek. Allow the oil to sputter. Take the pot off of the stove. Add 2 teaspoons of red chili powder and a pinch of asafoetida. Add the oil mixture to the lemons. Add salt to taste. Mix thoroughly and store in a glass bottle in the refrigerator.