Side note: I always found it weird that the Malayalam word for lemon (naranja, pronounced na-ren-ya, looks like the Spanish word for orange. Our word for table (mesa) is also similar, mesa but we pronounce the “s” as “sh”).
Since fermented foods are all the craze right now and boast many health benefits (think kombucha, kimchi, etc.), I wanted to highlight an Indian condiment that is fermented and oh-so spicy and delicious. I remember eating achar from a very young age. Though we did on occasion buy some from the Indian grocery store, my mom would mostly make her own achar. She has made the typical ones like lemon and green mango in red chili powder. She also makes an awesome “white” mango achar in which she uses green chilies rather than red chili powder. Another favorite is fish achar. In fact, my mom was making fish achar when she went into labor with me =) In India, my aunt makes some fantastic gooseberry (nellikka) achar. I love the tart and spicy combination that is a perfect addition to any Indian meal. I even love occasionally dipping a fried egg into some lemon achar! Trust me, it’s delish.
I just finished my stash of my mom’s lemon achar, and since she is in town, I asked her to make another batch. This post documents how she did so for reference (mine and yours!) later.
The real way to make lemon achar involves cutting the lemons into 1/8 pieces, putting them into a sealed glass jar with some salt, and letting the jar sit out in the hot sun for 1 week. This fermentation process also “cooks” the lemons down to make them soft and very delightful. You can then follow the steps below to make the achar. You can also keep the fermented lemons in your fridge for as long as you like if you want to make it at a later date.
Today was pretty cloudy, so my mom just cut the lemons up and steamed them in a colander until soft. It is definitely still tasty, but you get more health benefits and flavor from fermenting it. So here we go!
6 lemons – cut into 1/8 pieces (quarter them and then cut these in half)
2 whole garlic bulbs (yes!) – slice the cloves into halves or thirds depending on how large the cloves are
3 inch piece garlic sliced into long, thin pieces
Curry leaves from 2 stems
3-4 green chilies chopped (optional)
2 tbsp red chili powder
2 tsp asafoetida powder
1 tbsp fenugreek powder (uluva, or meethi) – best to roast this powder first
1 tbsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp white vinegar
4 tbsp oil of your choice (we used coconut)
Lemons: Fermented or steamed as detailed above
1. In a large wok, heat the oil and pop mustard seeds. Cover to prevent splattering of seeds.
2. Add the garlic, ginger, curry leaves, and optional green chilies. Sauté on medium heat.
3. Turn heat off.
4. Add the fenugreek powder, red chili powder, and asafoetida powder.
5. Turn heat back on to low-medium and roast the spices with the other ingredients until dark red.
6. Add salt to taste.
7. Add lemons and mix well over medium-high heat.
8. Add vinegar and mix well.
Place all into a glass jar and refrigerate! It lasts a long while in the fridge. Do not leave it out like store-bought achar because it does not have preservatives! Over time, the sourness from the lemons will cut the spice of the chili powder. It will still be very spicy, but if you have a good tolerance, it won’t kill you. On that note, enjoy!