A few years ago, Fallon Hannah Jacob, 31, started making a Kerala-style salted fish pickle from scratch after a conversation with her late uncle, who was lamenting the fact that he could no longer find these traditional fish pickles anywhere.
“My maternal grandparents are from Kerala. It was a fishing area, so the women used to preserve the fish by pickling it.
“So my late uncle was telling us about the traditional Kerala salted fish pickle from his childhood and how he couldn’t find it anymore.
“I was very intrigued and generally like experimenting in the kitchen. So, I decided to try making it myself and I gave it to my siblings and aunties to ask for feedback and kept fixing it until it was right, ” says Fallon.
Fallon’s initial pickle experiment was a great success and her sisters-in-law were particularly supportive and encouraged her to start selling it, which she did on the side as she had a busy career in advertising. Soon, she had to give up pickle-making altogether for a job opportunity in Dubai. But when she returned, she decided it was time to start making pickles full-time.
So Fallon started her home-based pickle business in 2018. In just two years, she has expanded from a single salted fish kurau pickle to 10 pickles, ranging from orange peel achar to three leaf achar, Bentong ginger achar, sweet coconut achar and even a cili padi achar!
Fallon’s pickle-making advantage (and strength) is in her sense of adventure. Instead of just sticking to tried-and-tested pickles like the traditional Kerala style salted fish pickle she first made, she has opted to experiment and embrace the path less travelled, in the process coming up with brand new pickles, many of which have never been done before.
“Most of my pickles are completely new recipes, so things like sweet coconut achar, cili padi and orange peel achar are unheard of.
“I’m always looking for ideas and inspiration everywhere I go and in everything I see, so I’m always like, ‘Oh, maybe I can turn this into a pickle.’ Like the orange peel achar idea came from seeing a recipe for marmalade and me wondering what would happen if I added some spices to it, ” she says.
Fallon says making pickles is tedious and requires a lot of attention to detail – from sun-drying the spices required for each pickle so that they last longer, to prepping the other ingredients which all need to be cooked together for nearly an hour on the stove.
Although she follows the basic principles of pickle-making, Fallon’s methods are slightly different from the norm – a fact she attests is down to both her personal preferences as well as what she perceives younger customers are looking for these days.
“Growing up, my siblings and I never ate achar because I always found it too sour. So when I started making achar, I made something that I myself would enjoy – not too spicy, not too sour, not too salty.
“My recipes are definitely different because I’ve changed a lot of it. Traditionally more of certain ingredients were used like salt or a lot of vinegar to ensure the pickle could be kept for longer, but I use a lot less of these ingredients. And the other thing that is very traditional is that after you make your pickle, you’re supposed to pour a layer of oil on top to protect the achar so it keeps longer.
“But I find that people my generation are trying to be a bit more cautious with what they eat, so when people see oil, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is not something I want.’ So I use less oil and just cook my achars for longer, so that they are drier and last longer, ” she says.
Fallon’s mastery with flavour pairings is evident in her pickles – her salted fish kurau pickle for example, is a thick, slightly spicy affair dotted with lightly salted fish pieces – a great beginner’s introduction to pickle. Her cili padi pickle meanwhile is not for the faint of heart – this fiery affair is spiked with heat from start to finish, but is also so good, you can’t help reaching for more.
Other variants like the three leaf achar, which is made with coriander leaf, mint leaf and curry leaf – offer herbaceous undertones amidst a spicy underbelly while the orange peel achar is full of citrus-ey goodness. Perhaps the revelation in her star-studded pickle line-up is the sweet coconut achar, which has richly nutty tropical notes that are oh-so addictive.
Now that she has been on the local bazaar circuit for a couple of years, Fallon realises that not many young people bother with making homemade pickles anymore – something that is evident in the fact that customers at the bazaars simply refuse to believe that she is the person responsible for creating an entire range of pickles by herself.
“People are skeptical, firstly because achar is a very traditional thing so me coming out of nowhere and being so young, they are always like, ‘Are you selling something your mum is making?’ I get that question all the time even until now – nobody believes that it’s my recipes.
“I don’t blame them because I don’t know anyone my age making pickles. I think a lot of young people never learnt how to make Indian pickles from their mothers and grandmothers. Even my own mother only learnt one recipe from her mother, which is a Kerala-style tenggiri fish pickle which has remained in the family.
“Also younger people these days likes things very instant and fast, nobody really wants to spend three or four hours to make a few bottles of pickles – it’s not needed anymore, ” she says.
But Fallon believes in the seductive allure of Indian pickles and is doing her part to generate added interest in the product, by highlighting the fact that many pickles need not even be consumed the traditional way i.e. just as a relish.
“I think traditionally pickles weren’t as versatile – even Indians didn’t really do anything else with it besides using it as a condiment with rice and other dishes and curries, so younger people are like, ‘Why do I need this?’.
“And that’s something that I’ve been trying to change. I have experimented with using pickles as pastes and marinades so I tell people ‘You can put a thin layer on your sandwiches or you can stir-fry your vegetables with a pickle or marinate your chicken with it when you’re making fried chicken. One of my favourites is marinating chicken with the ginger achar because it tastes like ayam goreng berempah.
“So I share all these new finds on my social media channels so that people can try it and then the pickles become something they can use in their cooking too, ” she says.
KERALA FISH PICKLE
For frying fish
500g fresh tenggiri fish, deboned and cut into 2.5cm pieces
a pinch turmeric powder
1 tbsp chilli powder
1 tsp salt
300ml gingelly oil, for frying
Marinate fish with turmeric powder, chilli powder and salt for 10 minutes then fry. Start with full flame for about 10 minutes, then reduce to medium heat for another 10 minutes. This is to remove all excess moisture from the fish, without burning the pieces. Remove fish from oil once fish is fully fried. Reserve remaining oil in pan.
For the paste
1tbsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp fenugreek
2 tsp black pepper, crushed
100g ginger, diced
100g garlic, diced
2 green chilies, deseeded and cut into 2.5cm pieces
a handful dried chillies, deseeded and cut into 2.5cm pieces
1 heaped tbsp chilli powder
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
1 tbsp sugar
a handful curry leaves
Splutter mustard seeds in the same hot oil used to fry fish, then add fenugreek and black pepper and sauté. Add diced ginger and garlic and stir until tender. Then add chillies and sauté. Stir in fried fish pieces. Add chilli powder and water and stir well into mixture. Then add salt and vinegar.
Cook for about 30 minutes until moisture evaporates, paste thickens and oil separates. Add sugar and curry leaves. Stir for another 5 minutes, then switch off flame.
Once fully cooled down to room temperature, put pickle in sterilised bottle.
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