The process of making Kutchi athaana is the culinary equivalent of watching paint dry. Yet, these is something about the process of grating, caramelising, bottling and tasting that brings the family together like few other things.
Summer is athaana season. I wasn’t home this year, but I knew exactly what my mother was doing in April: for a week, her life was devoted to the precise art of pickle-making. We are Kutchi, and therefore, our athaana cupboard must remain stocked through the year. I know that my mother will begin with an early morning shopping trip to a market raucous with voices that slide between Hindi, Gujarati, and Kutchi to pick out ingredients for her athaana. Not achaar, definitely not pickle, but athaana. She will buy bag after bag of whole unripe mangoes; of gundas, small, hard, untranslatable berries; of crushed fenugreek; small heaps of turmeric. She will come home and begin dissecting: the raw mangoes will be grated or chopped, the gundas will be cracked open for stuffing and crowded into oblong steel trays. Then, she will scatter handfuls of sugar over the fruit and lay trays on our balcony. She will wait for the sugar to caramelise, and shoo away cawing birds and the stray cat that always knows when it is athaana season, and then stir in powders of rigid and lusty proportions. She will stir endlessly and wait endlessly, and finally bottle the athaanas in tall white ceramic jars rimmed with ochre, half her weight. She will know what they taste like before she has made them, because she has eaten these athaanas all her life, and has inherited her mother and mother-in-law’s athaana recipes, and has found a balance of spices and oils and raw mango that teeters between the very particular pickle tastes of the home she spent her childhood in and the home she married into.
She does these things because we are Kutchi, and because part of being Kutchi means that you eat athaanas with your meals. Pickling isn’t unique to Kutchi culture, but the specific tastes and types of the athaanas of Kutchi households are, of course, entirely singular, so much so that my parents politely decline pickles at their non-Kutchi friends’ dinner tables. I like to imagine that Kutchi athaanas began as a way of tasting summer fruits in December, of eating tropical mangoes in Kutch’s desert, of elevating the meals of nomadic desert journeys. A small indulgence, yes, but an everyday one – the sort that settles quickly into the routine of your mealtimes.
The athaanas my mother makes, oil-slicked and warm and pungent, are nothing like the briny pickles of the United States. In New York, in thick-walled glass jars and enormous plastic buckets, unwieldy whole cucumbers slosh in a pellucid brine. In Bombay, athaanas dare not be watery: even a single drop of moisture that wiggles into an athaana jar can contaminate an entire batch. My mother’s athaanas are bright with heat and sweetness, they are packed with nubbly powdery spices and bleed violent marigold stains onto your plate. They are spooned into a small plastic bag and sealed with an industrial-strength vacuum packer and installed into a corner of the fridge in my dorm room, where they lie forgotten until I crave the foods of my home during midterms week, and spread the athaanas on borderline-mouldy sourdough toast.
Somewhere around the eighth standard, I remember being thoroughly unimpressed with the pickling process. I sat at the dining table, scowling as I watched my mother transport tray after tray to the windowsill. I refused to help. This task, I was convinced, was an antiquated relic that wasted far too much time forcing women to watch for caramelised sugar — the culinary equivalent of watching paint dry. I’m never going to be the kind of woman that makes athaana for my family, I remember thinking.
After the athaanas are made and bottled away and stored in endless rows and stacks that only my mother can navigate, the women of my extended family conduct elaborate athaana exchanges. When another household’s athaanas arrive at our dinner table, my mother and grandfather dredge their fingers in the oozing spicy sweetness of a foreign bottle, examine their quickly-stained cuticles, wrinkle their faces at each other, and make the same critiques every season. How does Ila kaki manage this colour with her katki every year? Or: Why does Mala add so much hing to all her athaanas? Very, very occasionally, my mother admits defeat: I can never get my chhunda as finely grated as Priti’s mother can. When the jars of gunda-keri and godkeri and katki and chhunda from her own mother’s home arrive, smuggled in the suitcases of distant not-really-relatives on the Muscat-Mumbai Indigo Airlines route, she creates an ersatz buffer zone for my grandfather: these are from Mummy, she prefaces quickly, carefully, before my grandfather can scrunch up his face at not enough spice or too syrupy.
There’s something about this one week of athaana-making and athaana-tasting that draws my mother and grandfather together in a way that few other things do. They pucker their lips up at Ila kaki’s katki, they take seconds of my mother’s mother’s spicy chhunda, they adopt identical expressions of revulsion when they taste too much hing. It’s more than that, though. Entire lives and friendships and fraught mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationships are woven into the athaana stories. As they gather up force in the athaana-tasting, they expand to lives and loves and daughters-in-law and dinner parties. I don’t know how to join their conversation.
It probably doesn’t help that I can’t taste the differences between athaanas from different homes. When I was little, I’d try, my finger following in the wake of my mother’s as it swiped through a pudge of athaana on her plate. When she tasted too much jaggery, or too little mustard oil, I’d nod in sage agreement. As I steadily drifted away from the language, though, it seems as though I unmoored myself even more firmly from any residual ability to detect the subtlest changes in taste that marked my family’s annual athaana tasting. Eating athaanas, and not doing anything else with them — not being able to talk about them and not being able to taste the differences in the athaanas that my formidable array of aunts produces — is akin to being a spectator to the rapid-fire Kutchi conversations that rattle back and forth between my parents and grandparents.
If I can’t taste the differences in the athaanas, and if I can’t speak the language of pickle season, how much does that unlink me from a heritage of Kutchi-speaking and Kutchi-eating and Kutchi-being? Chunks of grated raw mango and small lakes of mustard oil glower at me from the corner of my plate: sentinels of a preserved culture, bottled, genie-like, in ochre-rimmed jars until the next summer rolls in. A way to pickle culture and language, passed down from mothers to daughters and mothers-in-law to daughters-in-law.
Get the recipe for Keri nu Athaana.
Priyanka Mariwala is a Bombay-born writer who spent the last five years in New York contemplating why exactly she misses Sunday lunch at home, despite the stack of frozen puranpolis in her freezer.
Banner image: Nivedita Dravid
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