'An English pickle consisting of small florets of cauliflower, sliced gherkins, shallots, and other vegetables preserved in a spicy mustard and vinegar sauce. It may be strong or mild and is eaten with cold meats, particularly ham and roast pork.' I begin to anticipate the taste even as I read the description of piccalilli in the Larousse Gastronomique because, even though merely factual, it makes me almost taste a slice of salty pink ham with crisp, crunchy vegetables in a sharp, keen, juice, the tartness and piquancy complementing the meat. Delia Smith writes: 'I love autumn and one of the things I love most about it is that it’s the time to make some pickles to have at Christmas, to serve with cold cuts… It’s also lovely with sharp English cheeses and perhaps, best of all, with a fresh, crusty pork pie.' Again the black and white words make me think of wedges of sharp yellow Cheddar eaten alternately with a green sweet and sour gherkin; a warm pie with a tender, golden crust filled with salty, fatty meat with juicy, crisp-tender white shallots, the mustard going up my nose. I’m not saying the cheese can’t be eaten solo, or that the pork pie will remain untouched on my plate if there are no pickles; it’s just that they enhance the taste of the main dish and complement it. Or so I imagine.
The proof of the pudding was in the eating the other day when Madhvi invited us to Sunday brunch to celebrate Rajiv’s birthday. To begin with I was a little confused: was it called the Aman or the Lodhi, and also I didn’t think I was up to eating vast quantities at a time when I’m usually staggering around, rubbing my eyes. But that day my faith in myself was restored, thanks in part to the pickles and sauces. And in part to the warm and attentive service, where any disinclination I may have felt about walking around a buffet for repeated helpings was dealt with by staff that seemed to be genuinely happy to serve us at our tables.
The procession started with chaat: gol gappas. This augured well, because the jal jeera and the chutneys were good. Then came those little bamboo baskets in which we all know there will be dim sums. The prawn sui mais were pretty little bundles, pink faces peeping out of white casings, steaming hot, delicate fillings. On the side they’d served a red sauce, probably chilli. I’m a little done with the smooth, homogenous garlic chilli sauce that’s de rigueur at Chinese restaurants — it’s usually overwhelming, with far too much garlic and sometimes ginger. This one, though, was coarsely pounded garlic and dry red chilli, seeds intact, fried brown in lots of oil, but with a different flavour. I think it was caramelised onions. Slightly sweet, and despite their distinctive aroma, they made the sauce pleasant and didn’t kill the flavour of the main dish.
The spread on the buffet was, to borrow a phrase much loved and misused by fellow food writers, 'eclectic', and there’s no point listing them all. Between grilled calamari, salad with 'holly basil' (which I, being me, took the maître de to task about because they were wrong on two counts: both spelling and name), Burmese khao sway, Italian cold meats, Japanese sushi and Hyderabadi biryani. I got so bewildered that I plumped for dal chawal: yellow dal, probably arhar, tuvar, and plain steamed white rice. Like the time Anita was taken to a famous ice cream parlour in Geneva, tasted dark chocolate with orange peel, cherry with roast almonds, and strawberry with real chunks of fruit, and decided, defeated, to have vanilla.
But what tilted the choice of comfort food was the array of accompanying pickles served in large glass martbans. I was delighted not to be offered the two usual suspects, mixed vegetable pickle, Panipat-style, with its vilely spiced unseasonal combination of lemon, mango and carrots; and sweet mango chutney, more a jam or fruit preserve than a condiment. But that apart, each of them was well made, though too salty. There was apple pickle: large segments lightly stewed in sugar and maybe lime juice, flavoured with cloves and peppercorns. There was pineapple pickle, small golden cubes with whole red chillies, curry leaves and turmeric: sweet and sour and wholly refreshing. And there was a golden brown pickle with big chunks of fried fish in a masala paste of garlic and spices, slightly vinegary and with red oil floating on top. With them, the dal chawal was a feast. Unfortunately when I asked for a second helping by name, they removed the jar because until then they hadn’t known it wasn’t vegetarian. I wish I could make my own but the recipe was lost with my mother and I’m nervous about making it up.
I know that hunger is the best sauce, as my father never tires of quoting his father, but a little help never did anyone no harm.