It is well and truly time to move away from the Christmas fare which has been my pre-occupation this last few weeks. I am moving as far as I can from both my roots in the north of England, and my home in Australia – to the exotic East and the taste of achar.
‘Achar’ is, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘In South Asian cookery: a type of pickle or relish made from fruit or vegetables preserved in spiced oil or vinegar.’ The OED gives the first use of the word in English in 1598, in Linschoten’s Discours of Voyages to ye Easte and West Indies, in reference to achar made from the green fruit of the ‘anacardi’ or cashew nut. The origin of the word is, hardly surprisingly, uncertain. It comes ‘partly via’ the Persian, Portuguese, Dutch, Malay, or Indian vernaculars, or may ultimately be derived from the Latin acetaria (salad, from acetum, vinegar), which is pretty well covering all etymological bases.
The wonderful Hobson-Jobson: the Anglo-Indian Dictionary gives a similar definition, saying that achar is:
‘adopted in nearly all the vernaculars of India for acid and salt relishes. By Europeans it is used as the equivalent of ‘pickles’, and is applied to all the stores of Crosse and Blackwell in that kind. We have adopted the word through the Portuguese, but it is not impossible that Western Asiatics got it originally from the Latin acetaria.’
The Hobson-Jobson gives an earlier usage in English, in 1563, in the context: ‘And they prepare a conserve of it (Anarcadium) with salt, and when it is green (and this they call Achar), and this is sold in the market just as olives are with us. Garcia de Orta, f.17.’
The word has multiple spellings in English, which makes searching for the earliest recipe a bit of a challenge. As a start (I feel sure there must be earlier examples), here are a couple of recipes from the wonderful New System of Domestic Cookery, by Maria Rundell (1833)
Half a large Spanish onion, four capsicums, as much salt and lemon juice as may be agreeable to the palate, all pounded together in a mortar.
Boil a piece of salt fish, cut an onion and some capsicums in pieces, pound them well together, and add a little vinegar.
Quotation for the Day.
The art of the cuisine, when fully mastered, is the one human capability of which only good things can be said.