My Aunt Iysha (pictured above with her grandson Sean) makes the loveliest lemon pickle. Tart and tangy, it’s the perfect accompaniment to freshly steamed white rice. To show affection, she often sends guests off with a bottle of the potent condiment.
In 2008, my sister traveled through Bangalore airport with a jar of the pickle in her carry-on luggage. As she inched her way toward security, she caught sight of a large sign banning FIREARMS, SHARP OBJECTS, AEROSOLES, and…PICKLE. She obediently, though regretfully, pulled out Iyshakochamma’s beloved gift upon reaching the counter. The airport clerk confirmed that she couldn’t take the pickle on board. Before my sister could throw it out, he asked where she got it. She explained that it was a gift from her aunt. To her surprise, he offered to take it home, insisting that it shouldn’t go to waste.
Like so many Malayalee specialties, pickle gets some of it’s punch and a bit of crunch from brown mustard seeds. The tiny, gray-purple seeds are related to the yellow variety that is pulverized to produce ballpark mustard. However, brown mustard seeds are smaller than yellow ones and have a stronger flavor. They are available in the bulk spice section of most Indian grocery stores.
Whole mustard seeds must be heated to release their pungent flavor. In Kerala, they are commonly “popped” in hot oil using a process that’s akin to making fresh popcorn. Oil is heated and the mustard seeds are added. As the seeds release their moisture, they start a riot, ricocheting off the bottom and sides of the pan. Aromatics, such as chopped onions, ginger, and garlic, are often added to produce a chutney or a vegetable sauté.
Mustard seeds are also used to flavor oil with dried hot pepper and curry leaves, which is stirred into stews, such as sambar (pictured below).
Mustard seeds cook quickly and burn easily, producing a bitter taste. Typically one or two seeds will pop and, after a few seconds, the rest will start to shoot about. Once that starts to happen, watch them carefully. Quickly move on to the next step, whether it’s adding onions or removing the seasoned oil from the heat, after about a fourth of the mustard seeds have popped.
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Susan developed a passion for flavorful food as a child. Under her mother's wing, she learned to prepare everyday Kerala dishes.
In her twenties, Susan moved to Tokyo in search of adventure where she embraced Japanese culinary traditions. There she learned to value individual ingredients and tapped into the power of plating.
Once back in the U.S., Susan earned a Masters Degree in Public Policy. The hypnotic rhythms of the kitchen (mincing, chopping, mixing) drew her to Kendall College in 2005 where she trained as a chef. After a foray in the food industry, she started Cardamom Kitchen. Her mission is to promote all the benefits of home cooking. Susan leads cooking classes, and has taught at Whole Foods Market, the Fearless Food Kitchen, Gilda's Club, Common Threads, Swedish Covenant, farmer's markets and provides private instruction for children and adults. She also hosts a Culinary Tour of Devon Avenue, Chicago's Little India. Susan created and managed the "Kitchen Basics" column for Whole Foods Market.