We packed our first born off to college this past weekend. Even though we are still here with our son, the house is eerily quiet. My daughter was noisy enough to be twins, or even triplets. No more loud music and singing her lungs out – she has practice rooms at college for that now. Despite her devil-may-care attitude, and generally gregarious nature, she has never really been adventurous with food – except for chili sauces – which she puts on everything. She never really showed an interest in any of the Silk Road foods that came across the family table, until a couple of weeks before she left, when she started to eat my South Indian Lemon Pickle by the spoonful.
Now, my South Indian Lemon Pickle is a wondrous thing. A balanced salty and sweet citrus base flavored with roasted whole spices, and ground fenugreek. It makes a great condiment in an Indian meal, or can even be spread on naan or a bagel with a bit of yogurt or labne to compliment the flavors. Or like Miranda, you can eat it by the spoonful, if your tastebuds can take it.
The pickle is easy to make, but takes several weeks from start to finish. First you have to salt-cure the lemons on a sunny window for at least two weeks. Then you rinse the lemons and combine them with roasted spices. Then, you have to wait another excruciating couple of weeks for the flavors to blend and the magic to happen. I currently have a batch in the last stage, and will send it as part of a care package to my girl by the end of the month.
For those not already in the know: homemade chutneys and pickles are far superior to their commercial counterparts. The ingredients for homemade are of course fresher than store-bought brands, but for me, the greatest difference is the lower amount of salt in condiments made at home. That and the lack of preservatives like ascetic acid, which greatly change the flavor of these dishes.
In a Facebook thread recently, someone asked me for the recipe. So Marlena, this one’s for you:
South Indian Lemon Pickle
3 pounds lemons
½ – ¾ cup salt
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
1 tablespoon cilantro seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons red chili peppers
1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
½ cup mustard oil
¼ cup light sesame oil
¼ cup grape-seed oil
½ teaspoon asafetida
¾ cup lemon juice
½ cup sugar (demerara or jaggery)
A pinch or two of salt to make the flavors pop (optional)
- Start by placing about half of the salt into a deep bowl. Then, cut each of the lemons into eight pieces, and coat each piece in salt. Place slices into a jar and tamp down or squeeze as you go to release most of the juice in the lemons. Leave an inch or two at the top of the jar to allow space for lemons to shift.
- Cover and place on a sunny windowsill for 2 weeks. Shake daily for about 1 minute to mix the salt and the lemons. When the curing time has elapsed, the lemons will have softened significantly and reduced in volume. The lemons are ready when the peels are soft and pliable. Some lemons grown in drier climates may have very thick skins and may need a bit longer than two weeks to soften.
- Once the lemons have cured, remove them from the jar and rinse to help remove excess salt. Then soak in fresh water for about 15 minutes and strain. As the lemons are draining, lightly roast each of the spices separately in a dry sauté pan. They should be fragrant and just beginning to color when done. Be careful not to burn them or your pickle will have a scorched flavor instead of a lightly roasted one. Set aside to cool. When cool, grind the chili peppers and the fenugreek seeds.
- It is traditional to leave the lemons in large chunks, but I recommend slicing them into thin strips of about 1 by ¼-inch. It is also traditional to leave the pith on the lemons, but you can remove it if you desire.
- Heat the oils in a sauté pan. When warm but not sizzling hot, remove from the fire, add the asafetida. Stir and cover the pan. Let sit for 2 to 3 minutes. Then add the whole roasted seeds and the ground spices; mix well. Cool for another 30 minutes to 1 hour, so the mixture is barely warm.
- In a large bowl, mix the salted lemon slices, the lemon juice and the sugar until blended. Add the oil and spice mixture; mix well. Let sit covered for an hour or even overnight. When almost ready to bottle the pickle, spoon off the excess oil for a cleaner pickle. Taste the pickle and add a pinch or two of salt if desired.
- Spoon the mixture into jars, cover, refrigerate 2 weeks before serving. Store opened jars in the refrigerator.
As a condiment or a spread, this pickle is delicious. Give it a try and let me know what you think! (Words, recipe, and photograph by Laura Kelley.)