Avakaya – The Mango Pickle of the Telugus That Sailed the Armada!
The recipe of the Avakaya is over a thousand years old.
The recipe of the Avakaya is over a thousand years old.(Photo: Erum Gour / The Quint)

Avakaya – The Mango Pickle of the Telugus That Sailed the Armada!

Welcome to what is bound to be the spiciest episode of Southern Slurp thus far. It is summer season in the land of the Telugus, and that can mean one thing and one thing only; it is time for the world-famous mango pickle - Avakaya!

The heat arrives suddenly and in full measure in Andhra and Telangana. Porcelain jars that resemble obese amphoras are brought down from the attic, washed thoroughly and dried meticulously in the sun. The vegetable market is bustling by 6 am. The women walk with purpose, the leaders of a two-man platoon, followed by the husbands or the sons; trusty flag bearers holding large, empty bags, and long, sleepy faces.

The raw mangoes have arrived, and the time is ripe for picking the first, and the best stock. There will be cussed bargains, tempers will rise with the simmering sun, and will be cooled by sherbets and sodas sold in push carts. The Avakaya will be made in every home. But how old is the recipe?

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How Old Is The Recipe?

No one really knows. BUT, the Avakaya was an old, traditional recipe and even in the fifteenth century, pickles were a thing among the Telugus. Both ancient Tamils and ancient Telugus, from as long ago as 1,500 years ago displayed overactive imaginations when it came to salt, curing and pickling. They each had multiple names for salt in ancient Tamil and proto-Telugu, most of which have now fallen out of use. And in a number of texts, pickles and cured meats have been described in detail.

What we do know, is that the Arabs from before the advent of Islam, traded spices and pickles with the Andhras. The Dutch and the Portugese, in the fifteenth century, in fact, encouraged the Telugu people to prepare the Avakaya for export to western countries.

With the growing popularity of the red chilli over black pepper as the spice of choice, making pickles became easier, and cheaper. But the Telugus have the upper hand when it comes to pickles. And just as the mango is considered the king of fruits, the Avakaya is indubitably, the king of pickles!

Mango Varieties and Avakaya Variants!

Collector Mango, Kolamgova, Pariya and Rasalu are the top choices of mango varieties for the Avakaya. They are all specific to the Andhra and Telangana regions.

Rasalu isn't readily available in towns. But the Rasalu Avakaaya is by far the tastiest. And if you're into the jaggery laced version of the Avakaya, called the Bellam Avakaya, then you'll need to ask for Suvarnarekha.

Also, the Avakaya isn't one recipe, it's a genre.

Bellam Avakaya (with jaggery), Dhaniyaala Avakaya (with coriander seeds), Nuvvu Avakaya (with sesame), Menthi kaaya (with fenugreek), Maagaaya (grated raw mango), Dosaavakaaya (with cucumber), Endi Avakaya (with dried mango pieces), Bellulli Avakaya (with garlic); and the list goes on!

Making the Avakaya even today, is a community affair. It takes Herculean effort to process the raw mangoes and handle the spices. And making it together, and mixing gossip with the red, red, RED chilli powder and powdered mustard, is a joy you need to experience to truly understand.

Avakaya! What's In A Name?

The name is a wonderful amalgam of aavaalu - mustard, and maavidi -kaaya, meaning raw mango. The Telugus, and Tamil folk alike, make generous use of the mustard in everyday cooking. Just not as cooking oil. For some reason, most people in the Deccan are put off by the aroma. I think it's more to do with a parochial mindset than the actual smell or taste. But it is also true that groundnut and sesame oils are better suited to the temperature and environment here.

The many varieties of the Avakaya, by the way, aren’t recent inventions. They have been around since the time we Indians had been trading with the Portugese, say around the 15th century. The sudden burst of Avakaya varieties at that time, was thanks to the sudden influx of the 'chilli pepper', promoted vigorously by the Portugese in India.

In fact, it is time for a quick tour about the wonderfully colourful paranthesis – the Mirapa-kaaya, aka the red chilli!

The (Really HOT) Paranthesis!

Did you know that India tops the list of the largest chilli producing nations in the world?
Did you know that India tops the list of the largest chilli producing nations in the world?
(Photo: iStockphoto)
“I saw you green, then turning redder as you ripened, nice to look at and tasty in a dish, but too hot if an excess is used. The savior of the poor, an enhancer as good as you of of food, is difficult even to think of!”
Saint Purandaradasa

This is a song on red chillies, written and sung by the Saint and composer Purandaradasa, who sung his devotion for Vitthala /Panduranga/Krishna between 1480-1564. The reason I'm bringing it up right now, is to illustrate the effect the red chilli has had in South Indian cuisine. It's been eulogised by Purandaradasa, because it was a new entrant in the kitchens of the Deccan at the time. Also because it came, it spiced up the cuisine and then conquered the south Indian palate. The South Indian taste buds, too, fell for its hotness, and also because of how it could be grown literally in anyone's backyard. The exotic black pepper was relegated to ritualistic recipes, and gently pushed to a corner of the pantry.

Miriyalu is pepper in Telugu. Miriyampu-Kaaya is ‘pepper-fruit’, which became Mirapakaaya. It is from this that the English term chilli-pepper is derived.

The Ultimate Combination

Please note, this suggestion is not subjective, but axiomatic, as in gospel truth, I swear on the jar of Avakaya at home.

Now, let's get into a meditative mode. Close your eyes. Imagine a hot summer day - which should be easy for you, at least till June, regardless of where you are in India. It is lunchtime, and you are ravenous. You crave something spicy, but fear the oil, especially in the heat.

You are now inside a hut, seated on a straw mat placed over the smooth, cool, red-oxide floor. The hut feels cooler than it is, as you look outside at the over-exposed, barren field. In front of you, a clay plate is placed. And in it, with a wooden ladle, pure white Ponni rice is served. The whiteness is accentuated by the red clay plate. The rice is warm, not too hot. Over it, a dollop of light pink curd, thick as ice cream, drops gently. It is light pink because the milk was placed over hot coals, instead of an open fire. And so it was 'cooked' gradually, over an hour, instead of boiling over. This milk, when curdled, has the mild flavour of the tandoor, and the light pink shade.

You gently mix in the cool curd into the warm rice. Another dollop of curd, and you mix that in as well. With a clean wooden spoon, a piece of fresh Avakaya is placed on the side of the plate, with the red gravy of the pickle dribbling down, and gently nudging the white border of the curd rice.

Using your index finger, you swipe at the pickle, and lick. As your taste buds jump at hotness of the chilli, and the flavour of the mustard, you fill your mouth with a morsel of the curd rice. The combination is impossible to describe. How the plate is emptied of the rest of the curd rice, and the pickle, is always a mystery. It’s like the matrix. No one can tell you what it feels like, you need to eat it yourself!

And that about sums up the story of the legendary Avakaya. I urge you all to find your Telugu friend, and procure from him your bottle of the Avakaya, that is home-made. Yes, there is a difference. If you're in Delhi, you could head to the Andhra Bhavan, and get your bottle from there. If you have the time, do it after you've had a generous serving of Andhra meals!

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