Achar is used as a condiment with many South Asian dishes, especially the less spicy ones, such as daal chawal and vegetables, to lend them more flavour.
The lanes of Urdu Bazaar are lined with pickle shops, with visitors and shoppers being greeted by the strong aroma of pickled vegetables marinating in spices.
The spices used to marinate the vegetables in are also used in some traditional dishes such as mutton achari and chicken achari.
The desi version of pickles, in which a generous amount of spices and mustard oil is used, was introduced in this part of the world centuries ago in order to preserve food and use it in time of need.
Achar can be found in almost every home in India and Pakistan. It was first made at home and families would preserve keri, or unripe green mangoes, in oil and spices so they could have it in the winters.
Nowadays, the delicacy is sold in shops across the city, most claiming they make it at home. The desi condiment is also produced by large food companies.
But when they have time, most people like going to the narrow lanes of old markets to buy traditional, homemade achar.
Small shops in the downtown areas of Rawalpindi specialise in making pickles including in Raja Bazaar, Purana Qila, Bhabara Bazaar, Saidpuri Gate, Banni and Kartarpura and some are very popular among residents of the city.
“We have been selling achar for the last 70 years. Our family came from Amritsar and started a shop for selling pickles, which my grandmother made at home,” said Haji Shahid, a shop owner in Sabzi Mandi near Lal Haveli.
Mr Shahid said their pickles are made without the use of chemicals and preservatives and that the spices, mustard seeds and mustard oil are enough to preserve the condiment for more than a year.
“Using mustard oil is vital because it preserves mangoes and other vegetables. Some of the spices used also help, such as rai, red chillies and salt,” he said.
He explained that some of the vegetables had to be marinated and preserved in vinegar such as cucumber, green chillies, garlic, carrots and cauliflower among others. These pickles are not spiced and the vegetables are dried and salted before being marinated in vinegar for a few days.
Another shopkeeper, Mohammad Riaz, said women would make achar at home in the past and sell it to shopkeepers. He said shopkeepers and vendors have now started making pickles at home themselves to keep up with demand.
“Most pickles are made in the summers, because of the availability of mangoes. The recipe for mango achar is simple and does not require the use of artificial ingredients,” he said.
Most people like to have various achar with their meals in the summers and it is a must with particular dishes.
“Tangy achar, salad and mint chutney are a must when I am having daal chawal. I cannot have the dish without achar, come summer or winter,” said Mohammad Sohail, a resident of Bhabara Bazaar.
“People started making achar to help with their digestive system because anise, mustard seed, rai, amla and other seeds and spices used make it easy to digest heavy meals,” he said.
A resident of Saddar, Malik Mazhar said achar may taste good but contains high amounts of salt which can lead to health problems. He said achar is good for the digestive system but the same spices are used in main courses as well, which may create health problems.
“Excess of anything is bad,” he said.
Originally published in Dawn, August 14th, 2017