Pickle or, as we know them colloquially, achaar, oorgai, uppinikai, loncha – these words represent emotions.
All across the country, we are united by our love for this sometimes spicy, sometimes sweet, sometimes sour concoction that most meals are incomplete without. A mango achaar elevates a simple dal chawal while a mirch ka achaar adds to the taste of a paratha. For me, nothing is as soothing as hot rice with avakai (Andhra mango pickle), served with some papad.
Everyone has a favourite pickle and a nostalgic story behind it. And Sheila Chacko Kallivayalil has made it her life’s mission to trigger these childhood memories through her line of pickles and jams.
When Sheila moved to Mundakayam in Kottayam, Kerala, in 2001, she found herself with some time to spare. Staying in a lush green land with lots of produce like plantains, papayas, guavas etc, gave her the perfect opportunity to experiment with these fruits.
“After moving to Mundakayam, I saw that a lot of these fruits and produce were not fetching a good price in the market. I then thought of making jams and pickles out of them. I tried making plantain jam, which is popular in Kerala. I made it using the traditional method where it is cooked on a wood fire, which gives it the smoky taste,” says Sheila to The Better India.
So almost a decade ago, the 65-year-old took her first batch of plantain jam and gave it to a few small shops and bakeries in Kochi. A week later, when she went to enquire if they were doing well, to her absolute delight, they were sold out.
“I was absolutely thrilled to hear that they were all sold out. I honestly didn’t expect that so many people would like it,” laughs Sheila.
After that, there was no looking back for the sexagenarian. She added more products to her line called ‘Sheilas’. Today, she sells more than 14 pickles and jams. These include seafood pickles too, like the prawn, seer fish and veluri fish, that earn her about Rs 1.5 lakhs per month.
What’s interesting about Sheila’s journey is that she never made pickles and jams before.
“Everyone in my house, from my grandmother to my mother and mother-in-law were excellent, accomplished cooks. I had a constant supply of homemade pickles and jams. So, I never made pickles before in my life. When I had time on my hands, the encouragement from my husband led to that first batch of plantain jam,” says Sheila.
Most of Sheila’s recipes are traditional and made using old-fashioned methods to keep the homely flavours intact. She has a team of four women who help with the cooking, packaging, etc.
“We try to maintain the flavours of what we ate as children. Everything is done manually, we avoid using mixers and grinders. The traditional methods are laborious and time-consuming, but they keep the flavours intact,” says Sheila.
What adds to the flavour is that most of the produce is grown at their house itself.
“We grow brinjals, plantains, guavas, kandari chillies (bird’s eye chilli), vilumbi puli (bilimbi), which we use to make our products. They are naturally grown; we don’t use chemicals and fertilisers. We only buy lime, as we don’t grow it. We also don’t use artificial preservatives, additives or colouring. But we have a very stringent quality-check process,” Sheila asserts.
They are also consistent when it comes to their products.
“I am very particular about quality and consistency. The taste has remained the same. It can’t be too spicy or too sweet or too oily. If something needs 57 grams of an ingredient, it can’t be 56 or 55, I’m that particular,” adds the entrepreneur.
Scaling up the pickling
The pandemic posed a major challenge to this small business. Before 2020, the pickles were being sold through small stores in Kerala, Chennai, and Bengaluru. As the stores shut down, sales took a major hit, says Sheila.
“Most of the stores where we were selling shut down in March 2020. Many of them are slowly opening up now. So we then started selling online. Not being very tech-savvy, I am working on building a solid online presence. There is a lot of competition and I need to improve my online presence,” adds Sheila.
For now, her products are being sold in Kerala at certain shops, and in other parts of the country online.
For her customers, her pickles remind them of home.
Tina, a regular customer, says, “When I tasted Sheila’s plantain jam, I fell in love. It reminded me of the time I had the pickle at my grandmother’s house in Thrissur some two decades back. What is unique about her jam is that it has the very traditional Kerala taste.”
While most of the pickles are traditional Kerala recipes, Sheila has tried out some different pickles, like the brinjal, garlic in vinegar, and dried mango.
“Brinjal is not commonly used in Kerala. But I got this brinjal recipe from a friend and tweaked it to my liking. While this pickle was a laggard a few years back, it’s doing really well today. Similarly, I just tried making the garlic pickle on impulse after a conversation with a friend about its benefits. Even these non-traditional pickles are doing well,” adds Sheila.
What keeps her going is the love from customers, and the fact that she can bring a smile to their faces as they remember happy memories from their childhood with each product.
You can order here.
Edited by Yoshita Rao, Images Courtesy Sheila Chacko Kallivayalil
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