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Achar is a Hindi word that means “pickle.” Pickled fruits and vegetables are an important part of the cuisine of many nations, since they extend the shelf life of produce. In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, achar is made with an assortment of fruits, vegetables, and spices. Oil is used as a pickling medium and preservative, rather than water, as is the case in some other cuisines. These pickles are readily available in many markets, and they can also be made at home.
Different regions make different styles of achar. Depending on the region and the intended use, it can be sweet or spicy. It is designed to eaten alongside curries, breads, and other dishes, to add a new dimension of flavor. Almost anything can be pickled, ranging from mangoes to carrots. Common choices of ingredients include lemon, lime, ginger, onion, green onion, garlic, cauliflower, and hearts of palm. Often, a “mixed pickle” with several vegetable or fruit ingredients is made.
To make Pakistani-style achar, the cook starts by slicing the primary components very finely. They are rubbed in salt and turmeric, which both act as preservatives. An oil such as sesame or mustard oil is heated in a pan to the smoking point and then removed to cool. The cook grinds fenugreek, mustard, and fennel together, along with chili powder. Part of the oil is mixed with these spices, and the paste is rubbed onto the fruits or vegetables. The mixture is placed into an earthenware jar, and the remaining oil is poured on top. The achar is thoroughly stirred to distribute the oil and remove air pockets, and the jar is covered with cloth.
Achar must be periodically stirred, and when someone wants to eat some, they stir before dipping from the top of the jar. The pickle is very shelf stable, especially when stored in a cool dry place. Commercially produced achar intended for retail sale is sometimes mixed with preservative compounds to ensure that it will be safe to eat, but the acidic environment of a homemade version keeps most bacterial growth at bay.
Numerous variations of the basic achar recipe exist for cooks to experiment with. Regional specialties often use unique ingredients that may be difficult to find in other areas. Sweet achars go very well with fiery curries, while a more spicy pickle can pair well with a mild curry or fried food such as pakora or papadum.