Of sweet and sour and the keys to their battle..

I like lemons. Only when they are doused in sugar. Which means very sweet lime juice, sweet lemon pickle, lemon sponge, lemon curd, lemon meringue… well you get the gist – the sour stuff is palatable only when it’s paired with it’s counterpart – lots of the counterpart, in fact!

I’ve had people asking me why the rasam and sambar taste a little sweet in my home. That’s because of the Kannadiga genes from my father’s side (Kannadigas are the best vegetarian cooks in the world, btw, and if you want to dispute THAT, you’ll have to do it down below – in the comments section! 😉 ) – genes which entail a built-in sense of balance – of sweet and sour, chili and salty and an overall sense of tastiness. Something that has been endorsed by science – don’t believe me? check this Washington Post article which is all over the internet today – predictably! Here’s the link : http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/03/03/a-scientific-explanation-of-what-makes-indian-food-so-delicious/

All this learning and awareness of regional differences in cuisines came over the decades but when I was a very young bride, having decided to marry a Palghat Iyer, I was in for a shock – mostly in terms of cuisine! The sambar knocked my teeth back with its sourness, the rasam brought tears to my eyes with the kharam (chili heat) and I’m not even going to talk about things like pulikacchal and vatha kozhambu – couldn’t get them beyond my incisors!

It took me a while but I learnt to even like many of these dishes though the ultra sour stuff like puli inji (slices of ginger cooked in tamarind – very hot and very sour!) still take some working up of courage! Hubby, like a true Iyer, did NOT relish the sweetish element that I introduced into the sambars and rasams and we’ve had many a fight with me flinging the lump of jaggery at him when he objected to my putting it in the sambar!

On one memorable occasion, I flung it at him but unfortunately, forgot that I had put the jaggery down and picked up a bunch of keys and threw the keys at him. Well, not being very gifted at sports (holding the distinction of being always the last person to picked on the throwball team throughout high school!) and husband being consummately gifted at sports, my throw went awry and he ducked and the keys hit the chandelier which came crashing down! End result was much laughter and a bill from the landlady – which we really scraped the bottom of the barrel to pay!

He’s learnt to get used to and to even relish the jaggery in the sambar and pulikacchal now while I’ve learnt to overlook the puli inji without a shudder – there is a delicate balance!

One dish with which I had no such problem is the beloved-of-all-Palghats-and-maybe-all-other-Iyers-I-wouldn’t-know is the narthangai or citron pickle. Bitter and sour, the dish has absolutely no element of my beloved jaggery and sugar, but I love it! The one thing I do want to eat when my tummy is unwell, guaranteed setter-right of illnesses of various kinds – I won’t guarantee heartache but pretty much everything else!

Last month, traveling in the Himalayas, I came across this tree laden with the most delicious looking citrons – variety called kidarangai – see pic – and begged one off the owner (well, I was going to pinch it but then caught sight of an old man watching me suspiciously so I had to ask!)

Bought a few in the market and brought them all the way back to Chennai to make this pickle. The method for pickling narthangai and kidarangai is the same.


  • Narthangais or kidarangais– 3 large
  • Salt – 1 tbsp
  • Turmeric – 1 tsp
  • Roasted fenugreek powder – 1 tsp
  • Red chili powder – 2 tsp (OPTIONAL) – if you want a hot pickle
  • Gingelly oil – 2 tbsp

Wash and dry the fruit well. Slice the tops and tails off the citrons.

Slice into thin roundels and each roundel into four quarters. Add the salt and turmeric and mix well.

Cover and set aside. Shake every day for 4-5 days till the pieces are soft and the colour changes. Mix in the roasted fenugreek powder.

Mix the chili powder in if using and stir well. Heat the gingelly oil and add on top. Mix. Bottle in a sterile jar.

Super with curd rice or generally to lick. I love carrying it around for travel sickness too!

And no, I don’t advocate any jaggery in this – try throwing stuff at me – I’ve learnt to duck too!