The lost art of preserved foods

The lost art of preserved foods

Drying Papads back in the day on terraces and open spaces was usual in almost every Indian household

There’s a curious charm in beholding the larger than life dynamics of an Indian kitchen. The smells and textures of the stuff you’re bound to discover in there could be distinct and discernible, intoxicating and irresistible. There will likely be a bunch of fresh vegetables and fruits, and a heap of dried ones.

You could come across a line of jars sitting pretty along the span of the kitchen - some bearing the most aromatic and kaleidoscopic varieties of treated, aged condiments, and some, freshly made ones ready for seasoning. Some are eaten mixed in with rice, some on the side, and some, after a meal. Some of them are made months ahead to last through the grimmest times of year, and some have a pre-defined shelf life. The one thing that strings them all together is the ancient Indian tradition of preserving food, which is a lost art today at best.

That said, some semblance of it subsists in a state that would make our grandmothers turn in their graves - in food processing units, where, a man-made machine fills bottles and packs with these so-called preserve-worthy foods, ridden with tall orders of unrecognisable chemicals and colours.

If you walk into a grocery shop, however small or big, you’ll chance upon stacks of rainbow-hued papads, a dozen odd types of pickles, and other condiments, all ready to use at the sorry snap of a finger, leaving a sometimes metallic, sometimes absinthian after taste that lingers and makes us reach out for the sink or Digene, depending on the severity of the situation.

As we veer towards choosing local, fresh, organic produce, I’m reminded of the time when everything was customarily local, fresh and organic, in my mother’s backyard. Also, the from-scratch mania that strikes us as newfangled these days has been in existence forever, even though the choice back then for our grandmothers and mothers was deliberate, not forced.

While seasonal vegetables and fruits were preserved for use later, they still tasted fresh thanks to the methods and ingredients employed - which were easy to spell and easy to find. Be it the slitting and sun drying of mangoes, the pureeing and pan-reduction of tomatoes, the hand-slapping of papads and salt curing of chillies, they did it all.

If I could just close my eyes, I could feel the taste of a still-moist papad on my tongue, just as well as a dried one, ready for the frying. The expanse of the serrated terrace with clothes fluttering on the clothesline, yards of white cloth stretched out for the ceremonial papad season, and grandpa’s intimidating mammoth brolly standing guard as a makeshift scarecrow - these are the images that roll past me in sepia-tinted frames when I think of summers spent in my maternal home.

My Mom’s papads were all the rage way before the Lijjats and the MTRs came along, and even though I could sing the jingle of the Lijjat papad ad at a moment’s notice, I wouldn’t be caught buying a packet of it.

Here’s an easy recipe for a traditional Karnataka-style Chilli Papad, or “Thattu”.


Black Gram (Urad) Dal - 3 Tablespoons

Methi (Fenugreek) Seeds - 1 Tablespoon

Long Green chili - 1/4 kg

Asafoetida (Hing)- 1/2 Teaspoon

Salt according to taste

A little bit of groundnut oil for kneading


1. Soak the urad dal and methi seeds in warm water for a couple of hours.

2. De-stem and soak the green chilies in hot water for an hour.

3. Drain the water, grind the urad and methi, keep aside. Drain the water, grind the green chilies with asafoetida and salt, and mix with the urad and methi paste.

4. Knead well for a couple of minutes, adding a little bit of oil to make it doughy and rollable.

5. Pat it down on a sheet of wax paper or plastic, roll out with a rolling pin until it is about the thickness of a cardboard sheet, let dry in the sun for a few hours.

6. Once completely dry, break or cut into chunks/ squares, and store in an air-tight container for several months.

7. Deep fry a few at a time in hot oil and serve with your regular home-cooked meals.

Photo credit: Dreamstime

Ranjini is a multi-tasking maven: mom, writer, teacher. She blogs at Tadka Pasta with her best friend, Ruchira, and their partnership spans two books (Mango Masala and Around The World With The Tadka Girls), corporate cooking workshops and a food and culture immersion initiative in multicultural school settings. She finds her chi in the kitchen amid arrays of spices, frayed napkins and stainless steel kettles.

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