Avakai: Summers and mangoes, pickles and Telugus!

A hardworking, run-off-her-feet doctor with an eager 6 year old daughter wanting to help her do a very grown-up thing indeed – make aavakai. The mom has time to do this only in the night, after her day’s work at the hospital is done and home chores are taken care of. So – as a special ‘treat’, the daughter is allowed to stay up till late- very late – like past 11 o’clock. I remember finding out just how hot chili powder could be on the skin when my hands started to burn and mom gave me cashewnuts to pacify me – i thought it was worth it to get burn-y hands for the sake of a handful of cashewnuts!  As for the lateness, considering that my bedtime, even today, at 50, is 9 p.m. – for a 6-year old me – this was a stretch indeed!
Aavakai – so dear to the heart of every Andhra – the making of it, the bottling, the de-bottling are all rituals that every Telugu approaches with reverence in their hearts. You might not say your prayers or light a lamp or whatever every day but you dare not violate the sacred rituals around aavakai making and bottling! For instance, you can’t make it if you or anyone in the house has an infection- what if a germ gets in THERE?;  Can’t make it if you haven’t washed your hair that day (what if some stray flake of dandruff falls into the mangoes? Can’t make it if you, your hands, your clothes are all less than squeaky clean; and finally, the one with which I’ve terrorised the Tamilian family into which I’ve married – DON’T BREATHE when i open the ‘jaadi’ (jar)!
Making aavakai every summer is a ritual that i look forward to – the process of shopping for mangoes – traveling to the ‘mandi’ early in the morning armed with buckets, cans of water (for washing the mangoes i pick carefully after pressing them and smelling them), the pile of cloths to wipe them, overseeing the actual chopping by the vendor, lovingly dropping them – gentle – you can bruise them! – into the bucket, coming home, wiping the pieces dry, mixing the spices and finally adding the pieces a few at a time with the masala and oil and dropping them into the big jaadis, which have been readied by washing them in hot water and drying them well in the sun. It’s like a spiritual awakening almost! Husband has always participated enthusiastically on these jaunts – including the injunction ‘don’t expect anything more than curd rice for lunch today – i have to make AAVAKAI, remember?’! The prospect of a year long supply of his favourite side is enough inducement!
Aavakai pickle
Mangoes- green, very sour and unripe, weighing about 150 -200 gms each. Feel them to make sure they’re not soft or bruised and smell them for that lovely sharp raw-mango smell. – 1 kg
Cut into pieces about an inch long and with a bit of the tenka (the hard nutty covering of the soft seed inside). Remove the soft seed (jeedi) completely and wipe each piece with a soft, dry, lint-free cloth. Let the pieces dry in the shade for about an hour.
Masala for 1 kg of mangoes
250 gm mustard powder
200 gm chili powder (ask for pickle chili powder)
225 gm table salt
225 ml gingelly (sesame) oil – get the best quality cold pressed oil – it’s worth it!
20 gm whole black chana
20 gm – methi seeds
1 tbsp turmeric powder
Variation 1
2 whole pods of garlic – peel, dry in the sun for about and hour and mix into the avakaya
Variation 2
250 gm of jaggery – powder and dry in the sun for about an hour and then mix well into the avakaya.
Bottle the avakaya – remember the bottle must be squeaky clean and sun-dried. Cover the lid with a thin muslin cloth and tie it with a nada (like a pyjama!). Open the next day – after bathing – we didn’t go to all that trouble with cleaning the pieces for nothing, did we?? Mix it well, check if there is oil floating on top otherwise pour a little. Cover again and repeat for two more days.
Kotthaavakaaya (new avakaaya), the words guaranteed to make a slave of any Telugu for life, is now ready. And pssst… while unnamed peoples in my Tamil family tend to desecrate it by eating it as a side with curd rice (total abhisthu!!), the only REAL way to eat it is at the start of a meal or as a whole meal – with hot rice and a dollop of ghee…