Meen Achar: The Pickled Indian Fish You Should Know About

The pantheon of pickles is large, encompassing a vast galaxy of fruits, vegetables, and yes, meats. There is also a wide variety of seasonings, brines, and techniques, ranging from quick to the quite involved. Korean kimchi is a type of pickle, most commonly napa cabbage that has been fermented with garlic, ginger, and chili powder. Umeboshi is also a pickle, the salty, sour product of brining and sun-drying Japanese plums, or "ume," per Just One Cookbook. In the American South, some hearty souls enjoy a unique, meaty, and gelatinous pickle: pickled pig's feet, explains Two Guys and a Cooler.

According to PBS, humans have been pickling foods for thousands of years, as it is an effective form of preservation when refrigeration isn't available. For instance, when cucumbers take a bath in a salt and vinegar brine, lacto-fermentation begins and halts the growth of harmful bacteria.

While Americans may only think of cucumbers when you say the word pickle, India is home to a myriad of pickled foods, including a unique and beloved pickled fish from the state of Kerala called meen achar.

History of Kerala cuisine and meen achar

Pickles have a long history in India. According to The Culture Trip, cucumbers were first cultivated and pickled in the Tigris Valley in 2030 B.C.E. and by 1594 C.E., there were over 50 varieties of pickles. Today, the most generally-recognized Indian pickle is made from mango, but they are also commonly made from other fruits, a plethora of vegetables, gourds, shoots, and even meats such as chicken, prawn, and fish.

Meen achar, a fish pickle often made with tuna, originates from the state of Kerala. Kerala's cuisine is diverse and distinct, notes Indian Culture, owing much to its location on India's southwestern Malabar coast, adjacent to the Arabian Sea. For much of its history, Kerala was an important part of the spice trade with both Arab and European nations, and the cuisine is a reflection of that, blending flavors and cooking styles from outside cultures into its own. Rice, coconut, and fish are all central to gastronomy in Kerala, along with pungent spices, like black pepper, cinnamon, and clove explains the BBC.

The waters off Kerala's Malabar coast support a fishery rich with mackerel, sardine, pomfret, tuna, and more reports the Kerala State Coastal Area Development Corporation. Tuna, in particular, is prepared in a number of different ways, such as tuna curryfried tuna, and of course, meen achar.

How to make and serve meen achar

So what exactly is meen achar? As Slurrp explains, the condiment brings together fried tuna — or other fish — with garlic, ginger, turmeric, cloves, pepper, vinegar, and other spices to create a dish that has a dynamic depth of flavors. Preparing this Kerala recipe is relatively simple: The fish is marinated in spices and aromatics before being fried, salted, doused with vinegar, and once it cools it's ready to eat.

On Manorama explains that meen achar will keep preserved for a matter of years if kept in airtight containers. Due to its bold and pungent flavors, they suggest serving the fish pickle with more delicately-flavored accompaniments like rice or roti, an unleavened Indian flatbread. 

If you have not seen meen achar on a menu at a restaurant yet, you may see it soon, because according to Taste, Kerala's cuisine has recently risen in popularity in the U.S. Restaurants from Las Vegas to New York are serving up dishes like squid thoran (stir-fry), fish in banana leaf, and mutta omelets. South Indian chefs can be credited with this recent trend, because they have used social media to taut the nuances and unique qualities of food from Kerala.