The traditional recipes used at Aamra to make pickles and chutneys have been handed down over generations. Takshama Pandit—head of sourcing and partnerships at The Locavore—finds that pickle-making requires tremendous mastery and patience.
Under the strong Ghaziabad sun, limes and green mangoes are dried in the sun, fermented, and processed with care by the women workers at Aamra. These will then be matured over several months in martabans—large, traditional ceramic jars with mustard-hued rims and lids—an important step in their transformation into delicious pickles and chutneys. At the Nari Shiksha Kendra, the room that houses these pickles is quiet, and filled with the tangy scent of chillies and other spice masalas.
The tales of Nari Shiksha Kendra (NSK) and Aamra are intertwined. Nari Shiksha Kendra was started in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, in 1964 by Pushpawati Khaitan. A pioneer, she established a reading room and library in her neighborhood, and was also instrumental in starting a school in the township. The Nari Shiksha Kendra had two main purposes: providing employment to the women in the local community, and making pure, hand-ground masalas and pickles which are reminiscent of a grandmother’s larder. Some of the women who joined the organization in the 1990s are still a part of its thriving centre.
Today, 50 years after its inception, Nari Shiksha Kendra is led by Jaya Bajaj, Pushpawati’s nephew’s wife. As an extension of this, she also founded Aamra, NSK’s own label. While Aamra’s aim is to develop food products that are based on traditional recipes, creating livelihoods for women in the community continue to be an essential part of its ethos.
The recipes for pickles and chutneys that Aamra uses have been passed on through generations, and taken a long time to perfect. Relying on seasonal produce and handmade processes mean that sometimes nimbus aren’t as sour as they should be, or that the chilies are too hot and need to be replaced with less spicy chilies from Jaipur. For every preparation, spices are dried, and carefully ground by hand.
Each recipe finds its flavour in a measured marriage between simple and fresh ingredients. Like the Meetha Nimbu Pickle, for which seasonal winter kagzi (key) limes from the local mandis are matured with whole spices like black pepper, jeera, peepal, and ajwain over long months filled with anticipation. Each spice brings with it its own flavour dimensions as they mature, and the pickle is aged for two years based on a recipe passed down by an aunt from Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh.
Other recipes too have been handed down by the women who work at Nari Shiksha Kendra, or are heirlooms from the homes of friends and family known to them. The Heeng Aam is one such recipe made in homes across Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Rajasthan, and its source of origin is often debated among these different communities. At the center of this recipe are mangoes—either dasheri or langda mangoes, sourced from local farms within a radius of 60 kilometers. They are peeled, sliced, and mixed with a blend of carefully chosen ingredients, including asafoetida from a producer in Kabul.
Some Aamra recipes also highlight regional ingredients, such as the Marwari Lehsun Chutney that uses kacchri, a sour wild cucumber grown in Rajasthan that is often paired with garlic.
An all-women team
Each of these products are made by women from the local community for whom the process of making pickles is arduous, yet joyful. The pickle-making process is one that requires mastery, discipline, and patience. The older women on the team are asked to perform more skillful tasks such as the actual cooking of the pickles, while the newer joinees do tasks like sifting jeera and peeling the garlic, slowly gaining expertise. For most of these women, employment has also enabled them to support their families.
It’s been 25 years since Anita Kashyap joined the centre to support her family. A farmer’s daughter, she shifted to Ghaziabad soon after her marriage. Anita’s day usually begins with her meticulously cleaning the workspace, and progressing into her favourite part, pickle-making. “I like the pickle-making process,” she says. “Especially cutting limes, drying them, and measuring out the spices.” Her colleague Usha Devi adds, laughing, “On our days off, we don’t even feel like sitting at home.” When asked about their favourite pickle, both Anita and Usha are quick to pick the Heeng Aam Pickle.
While asking Anita what the fruits of her labour have been over the last two decades, she contemplated for a moment, her fingers interlocked, and eyebrows scrunched. “A house has been built, and the children are studying.”
Like her, Usha who hails from Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh, has been with Aamra for three decades. In this time, she has put her three children through school, with the eldest and middle having cleared their B.Com exams, and her youngest currently in grade 12. With clear and ringing laughter, she shares that she is a nani (maternal grandmother), and hopes to soon be a dadi (paternal grandmother) too. She couldn’t be happier that her children are well-educated, and that she can support her husband who works at a kirana mandi.
Today, many of Aamra’s jars are finding a place on shelves across Indian homes. Jaya leads the team of women with a determination that is firm, yet gentle. The hesitation of women from the community to work outside their homes was palpable when they began, she mentions. “Even ten years ago, when we wanted to add more women to the team and asked our staff members and others if their wives could join us, we were told that women don’t want to work,” says Jaya. “Socially, it was looked down upon. Today, so much has changed.” At present, many of the women who work at Aamra are earning at par, or more than their husbands, resulting in more demand for work than what the centre can offer.
Aamra is in fact the name for a wild mango that is eaten raw, and also refers to the pronoun for ‘we’ in Bengali—a fitting name for a company that weaves together the lives of the women, and the love and heritage that they bottle in a jar. When asked about her dreams, Anita says, “We hope that the company prospers, and so do we.” She hopes to continue supporting her family, and her children’s education. Usha plans to expand her house to accommodate her growing family as her children get married. For Jaya, the aspiration is to create more employment opportunities for the women of Ghaziabad.