A smooth and sticky preserve from Papi’s Pickles
Sri Lankan and south Indian fare can be famously labour-intensive. Meals often require hours of preparation, gathering fresh ingredients, grinding spices, soaking lentils, chopping vegetables—a communal undertaking, often conducted outside. When we arrive at the stall to ask Papi’s Pickles about the new carrot and smoked aubergine pickle, the sky is grey and tense with rain clouds, but that sense of creating something delicious, from scratch and as a team, is ever-present.
“Many of our dishes and pickles are very traditional, such as the mango, but this is a new recipe that we all put our heads together to come up with,” says Shanthini, one of the chefs behind the stall. “It’s a case of trying and testing different combinations to come up with something new and different, which is an exciting process. It doesn’t always work, but I think with this one we’ve got it.”
Absolutely everything they do is from scratch, made by hand in their London kitchens using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. First, they smoke the aubergine, “either under the grill or on a gas flame, on a low heat,” continues fellow chef Radhi. “You can really see and hear it crackling, giving it that lovely smoky flavour.” The skin is then removed (“it does get really quite charred!”) and the flesh set aside for the pickle.
The tamarind is “as close as you can get to taking a pod off a tree. We buy it in slabs, with seeds intact, completely untreated. It’s very hard, so we have to really work at it with our hands, in warm water, to extract the juice.” This is then combined with chopped organic carrots and blended.
A touch of heat
“We then heat some sunflower oil and add it all to the pan, along with jaggery, garlic, a pinch of salt, turmeric, which we grind ourselves, and chilli powder made from freshly dry-roasted and ground chillies,” Radhi explains. “We never have any spices in the cupboard—they lose their flavour when stored. Everything is made fresh as and when required, which means the chilli is quite intense. We only need to use a little to give the pickle a touch of heat.”
The mix is left to bubble away on the hob—“the process can take anything up to four hours, depending on how much we are making”—and reduce. “It’s important that the water completely evaporates. There needs to be no water content at all, or else it will spoil. There are no preservatives or additives, just a little salt and the sugar from the jaggery to preserve it. They won’t last for months!” she continues. “We say to keep it in the fridge and try to use it within three weeks.”
Poured into sterilised jars and left to cool, the result is a smooth and sticky pickle, with a balanced and sweetly smoky flavour that cries out to be dolloped on a fat wedge of Lincolnshire poacher. “People have it in their sandwiches, on their toast—but cheese is a very common one,” Radhi smiles. “Otherwise, we like to have it simply with homemade bread sticks.”
In Sri Lanka, pickles are a traditional part of every meal. “If you were to go anywhere in South India or Sri Lanka for lunch or dinner, you would always get pickles as an accompaniment,” adds Shanthini. “You can have it with dosa like we do on the stand, roti, rice or lentil dishes. That’s what’s so nice about it—you can have it with just about anything!”