Kasrod ka Achaar: Indian Style Fiddlehead Fern Pickle
If you read my previous post then you know my journey with fiddleheads, which are known as kasrod in Jammu and parts of the Himachal region in India. There are subtle regional nuances that I laid out in the post along with the Kasrod ki Sabzi recipe.
Today, I'm writing about the fiddlehead fern pickle I first ate in Katra, a small town in Jammu, many years back during a family trip to the shrine of Vaishno Devi.
Quoting from my previous post,
I remember the kasrod ka achar, fiddlehead ferns pickle, served with with our meals during that trip. Steaming hot rice, Mah da Madra (Urad dal cooked with yogurt) or Kulthi ki Dal (horsegram) and tablespoons of the fiddlehead pickle on a steel plate are prominent in those obscure memories of the hills. That was my first encounter with fiddlehead, fermented in coats of mustard, chili and turmeric with the punch of salt binding them all.
A Google search will yield some version of this pickle recipe. However, I don't write so much for the recipes as much for a dish or an ingredient's milieu, and to chase my own thoughts leading up to creating a dish or the people behind them. After all, there are so many recipes that one can master (or not), but knowing the context of our food can enrich our eating so much more and naturally exalt our cooking process. (There's a recipe in the end if you're eager!)
In northern India, fiddleheads grow in the silent vast elevations of the great Himalayas, far from human traces in the upper reaches of the states: West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu-Kashmir. Jammu is one of the three regions of the Jammu-Kashmir state, with the mid Himalayan range Pir Panjal in the north, the state of Punjab in the south, Ladakh in the east and close to Pakistan in the west. In Jammu, fiddleheads grow wild in the Shiwalik mountain slopes, overlooking the plains fed by the Chenab, Ravi, Tawi and Ujh rivers, and similar to other hilly terrains elsewhere in India, they're valued in Jammu as well.
Pickling fiddleheads, kasrod as they're called in Jammu, is part of the food culture of Jammu's Dogra community. To understand the relevance of this practice, it's important to delve deeper into Jammu's geographical location, climate and agriculture and their effects on its people, the Dogras.
The Dogras who initially inhabited the area between the slopes of Shiwalik mountain range, the sacred lakes of Saroiensar and Mannsar, later spread over whole of the Jammu region, and emerged as a regional domain from the Duggar Raj, flourishing as the Dogra dynasty under Maharaja Gulab Singh from 1846 to 1947.
Colonel R.D Paloskar writes in A Historical Record of the Dogra Regiment: A Saga of Gallantry and Valour:
Dogras are the inhabitants of the hilly regions of Jammu and Kangra. Originally, it seems those who inhabited the territory of the erstwhile Jammu state were called the Dogras, irrespective of their castes. Later, the British called all those who enlisted in the army from the Rajput hill states as Dogras, purely for military convenience. Thus, the Hindu fighting classes of Jammu, Kangra, Chamba and portions of Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur and Sialkot came to be called the Dogras.”
In Baburnama, Babar describes the centuries old primary invasion route into India. This route was across the 800-km long Hindu Kush mountains, buttressing the Pamir Mountains at the juncture of China, Pakistan and Afghanistan's borders, and through the Khyber Pass. Crossing the Indus river, invaders came to Punjab through Rawalpindi, Sialkot and Gurdaspur, and then to Delhi through present-day Chandigarh. The Dogras live in the area on the eastern and north-eastern fringes of this route, which directly impacted their history, culture and lifestyle.
The other aspect that has influenced the Dogra way of life is the rugged topography of the region. The research paper, Songs of Separation: A Study of Select Dogri Folk Songs, Bhaakhs mentions, "The foothill pediment zone ‘Kandi’ lies between Shiwalik hills in the north and Jammu plains in the south...in Jammu province, Kandi belt is 10-30 km wide, stretching from Akhnoor in the west to Kathua in the east...About 57 percent of total area of these districts is under Kandi belt...the upper portion of Kandi belts consists of low hills covered by shrubs and forest, and the lower terrain has cultivated lands and gully beds. It has undulating topography, steep and irregular slopes, erodible and low water retentive soils and badly dissected terrain by numerous gullies. The major land and water management problems being faced in the Shiwalik hills and Kandi belt include excessive runoff, soil erosion, land degradation and erratic water distribution in space and time, hampering agricultural production."
The strategic location of Jammu on India's primary invasion route pushed its people to the heights of valor and strength against intruding forces in the past, continuing to harness the spirit of soldiering in the subsequent generations. Working in the defence forces of the country, Dogra men were away from home most of the time. Considering the nature of land and terrain in the region, agriculture is subsistence, and military has been a chosen occupation for income and survival. Many Dogra villagers are also known to work as labourers outside Jammu, leaving women to take care of families back home. Women, who are thus cardinal care givers, as is the case in most parts of India, are left alone and many times lonely, emoting their feelings through songs called Bhaakhs.
Nidhi Verma elucidates in her thesis, "Through Bhaakhs, women vent their longing for husbands or beloved. Bhaakh also expresses the pain women undergo being away from their maternal home, their roots, their childhood friends, and how they deal with their pain. Women in the traditional Dogra society were not allowed to visit their maternal home after marriage. And if the husband also leaves her alone to resume his services, her life revolves around her duties and work. Bhaakhs reflect her strained feelings as she is isolated in a new place."
In these special folk songs, Bhaakhs, the glory of Jammu's food also finds place. With lands rugged and unsuitable for extensive farming, you would not imagine a rich repertoire of dishes in the Dogra community. But, you'll be surprised by the plethora of food Dogri women cook, a strong hint at the resourcefulness of the women folk and their ingenuity in the kitchens, making the best of what they were left to do at home. Legends describing the lifestyles of royal Dogra families, bring up the food that wives of Dogra warriors cooked including pickles to welcome their husbands' return from battlegrounds, and how couples united over delectable dishes after long separations.
In India, if not everywhere, of the many things that can narrate a community's eating choices and preferences, pickles are definitely illustrative of what the people making them cherish and what they want to perpetuate. Pickles or achaar as they're called in India, which may have been abated as mere condiments in the modern era, are actually mains in the meals of several communities. Living through years, assimilating in spice and layers of oil and salt, they are culinary timestamps carrying spoonfuls of cultural mores in the subcontinent.
The mountain life in general entails extended and harsh winters when fresh produce is scarce. So in Jammu, there is a natural inclination towards dals or lentils and forest produce like gucchi (morel), kasrod (fiddle head), tarad (Dioscorea belophylla - a type of edible yam), teu or dhio(Artocarpus lakoocha), lasooda (Cordia dichotoma), keora (agave), katrair (Bohenia variegata) and more. The unavailability of year-round fresh produce also makes preservation of fruits and vegetables in various ways, including pickling, integral to mountain life. Like all hilly regions, this holds true for Jammu and its Dogri people who have a long standing pickle bequest with handed-down family recipes of pickles made from forest produce like fiddleheads along with commonly grown vegetables like aloo (potatoes), gajar (carrots), jimikand (elephant yam foot), kadam (kholrabi), beans, galgal (Hill Lemon), mooli (radish), phaliyan (green beans), and mirch (red and green chilies).
For many, the achaar tradition in India is effervescent with memories of summer holidays spent at grandparents' homes and mellow winters atop terraces watching ceramic jars filled to the brim, tiffin boxes daubed with oil or glass bottles packed in suitcases, smelling of someone's home.
Since every community across the length and breadth of the country have their own styles and methods for pickling, depending on the vegetables, fruits or meat they want to preserve and enjoy, and the spices and oils favoured and available in the region, almost anything that's edible and can find its way to the plate, has the potential to be pickled in India.
For this reason, pickle making is also regional culinary knowledge, and learning to make pickles and continuing the tradition is a way of honouring that old art form. Along the same line of thought, this fiddlehead pickle from Jammu is a facet of the Dogra community's food proficiency sealed in many bottles.
The origin of the word achaar maybe Persian, but the associated techniques, especially pickling with oil, and heritage are unique to India. In the northern half of the country, mustard oil is favoured for pickling while in the southern half, sesame oil is more common. Similar to other hilly regions in north India, mustard oil is the chosen fat for pickling in Jammu. The inclination for mustard oil in the colder regions of India is understandable. Mustard has warming properties and tends to keep the body warm in cool and cold climates. Known for its antimicrobial, antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, mustard oil is a safe bet to preserve pickles and extend their shelf life. So, remember a good quality mustard oil is key to most of the north Indian pickles.
Going back to pickles and the use of mustard oil, it's also notable that mustard oil is a sharp pungent note to itself that works well in pickles. Indian pickles are made using salt, acid, sometimes sugar or jaggery along with a combination of spices and oils, and this entire concoction creates conditions inhospitable for bacteria and fungus which can spoil pickles. Like other northern states in India, pickles in Jammu use the golden amalgam of mustard seeds powder with mustard oil that lends a much needed sourness to the pickles. Fiddleheads which are grassy and nutty in flavour and balance well in a spice mix of mustard, turmeric and red chilli powder, and dollops of heated-and-cooled mustard oil with generous amounts of salt help preserve the wild greens throughout the chill of winters. As the mustard ferments it makes the pickle tangy and stabilizes the heat of chillies and other spices and steadies the excess of salt.
Food in the hills is simpler and minimal, both in its flavours and textures, and that holds for the Dogri food as well as their pickles. By no means this simplicity implies ennui. Robust with mustard oil and hints of spices like mustard, cumin, chillies, turmeric, Dogri pickles are enough to enliven a plate any day. After returning from a 24 km trek (12 km one way) from Vaishno Devi, the sight of hot dal ladled on a bowl rice and topped with kasrod ka aachar has remained special in my memories just like the afterglow of sunsets clinging to hills, which may all be the same yet each is exquisite on its own.
Although made all over India, pickles I feel, deeply reverberate the mountain life. Untouched, slowly fermenting in transparent bottles under scant sunshine, pickles in the mountains take their time to mature and become useful as food and develop the intense flavours for which they're loved. Time is a convoluted concept in the mountains I feel, a touch and go at times. It seems to lollygag atop the hills, so slow that sometimes one wonders if it exists. Paradoxically, this slowness also gifts the abundance of it as Philip Connors rightly says, "The greatest gift of life on the mountain is time. Time to think or not think, read or not read, scribble or not scribble -- to sleep and cook and walk in the woods, to sit and stare at the shapes of the hills."
Amidst the seemingly existent folds of time, things and people are let to be, like the Dogri women of Jammu who have stirred and churned the best in the solitude of their kitchens, perhaps entwined between feelings of thrill from self-discovery and strange fears from the misgivings of their beloveds' return. For me, kasrod ka achaar from the hills of India represents that ascent above the expectations growing pell-mell from fast culture. Achaar in general is a paradigm of how wonders can happen if we truly comprehend and carry through slow food — I'm not just saying about slowly cooked or slowly made food but letting food be — and one made of foraged greens like kasrod only makes it better.
The key ingredient that gives this pickle its character is mustard oil. If you don't have access to mustard oil, you can use oil infused with mustard seeds. It will not be exactly the same flavour wise but will work.
Note: In the US and Canada, mustard oil bottles come with a label, "For external use only", and I would encourage you to read Nik Sharma's article, The Truth About Mustard Oil: Behind the "For External Use Only" Label on Serious Eats to help you decide whether to cook with mustard oil and understand the reasoning behind the American/Canadian labels on the mustard oil bottles sold here. Coming from India, I'm fully aware and habituated with mustard oil, and will not budge from using it!
I use black mustard seeds to make the powder, but the brown or yellow ones or a combination of different mustard seeds will also do. The yellow and brown mustards are less pungent — so they'll not give as sharp a flavour to the pickle.
Always taste your pickle before leaving it to ferment in bottles, so that you can adjust salt as needed.
Bonus! You can use this same recipe to make any other kind of pickle as well like carrots, yams, kohlrabi, radish, beans or chillies!
200-250 gm fiddleheads
2 tbsp mustard powder
2 tsp turmeric
1 tbsp red chilli powder
1/3 cup mustard oil
Salt as per taste
Clean and wash the fiddleheads, stringing the mature ones. Wipe with a clean cloth or paper towel and then chop into small pieces. Spread on a clean cloth and sun-dry for 4-5 hours or until all water has evaporated. In cooler places, this can take up to a day.
Heat mustard oil to its smoking point and keep aside to cool. Meanwhile, mix all the dry spices along with salt in a bowl. Add the clean dry fiddleheads into the bowl and mix again. or After mustard oil reaches smoking point, reduce heat, add salt, turmeric and chilli and mix. (Don't add the mustard powder now! Mustard powder/paste in hot mustard oil can turn bitter.) Then add the clean dry fiddleheads and cook for 1-2 minutes. Turn off the heat and keep aside to cool.
If you opted to only heat the mustard oil and kept it to cool, now pour the cooled oil over the fiddleheads and spice mix and bring everything together with a clean spoon or clean hands. Be careful to not have wet hands or spoon while doing this. Else, there are high chances of moisture developing in the pickle and spoiling. or If you opted for the second method and mixed fiddleheads, spices except mustard and oil, and left it to cool, now is the time to add the mustard powder.
Taste for salt using a separate spoon. Adjust salt if needed.
Fill sterilized glass bottle(s) with the pickle, and cover with a clean cotton cloth and tie using a string/rubber band, and leave the bottle(s) in a sunlit place for the mustard to ferment. Ensure at least 10 days of fermentation before eating. Instead of covering with cloth, you can seal the bottles with the caps. But the advantage with cloths is that it allows any remanent moisture to escape in the sun.
Once your pickle is ready, enjoy with flatbreads or rice and dal. Always use a clean spoon/fork when taking out a portion from the bottle. It will last for even up to a year if you treat it the right way!