A lime pickle is one of those classic side dishes that you’ll find served with a curry at Indian restaurants all over the world. It’s tart, spicy and delicious. And it’s not that hard to make at home.
But for something that seems kinda simple, there’s a lot of regional and individual variation in recipes. To get to the bottom of the differences, I’ve reviewed and compared twenty recipes for Indian lime pickle, including Goan, Keralan, and other regional variants, plus a few from other countries, including Sri Lanka and even one from Kenya.
Before we jump into it though, a quick word on terminology.
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Lime pickle vs pickled limes
If you’re in North America, pickle likely immediately makes you think of a pickled cucumber. In many other parts of the world, a pickle refers generally to the process or the dish rather than a specific type.
As an example, in India, where pickling is very common, you’ll find mango pickles, chili pickles, garlic pickles, and many more, including our focus here – lime pickles.
So a lime pickle is the same as pickled limes.
What’s in a lime pickle?
A lime pickle is typically well spiced and includes some heat (chili pepper) as well. The spice mix, the heat and more all vary from region to region and recipe to recipe.
In spite of how much variation there is, there are a number of ingredients that appear very consistently amongst the 20 recipes that I compared (apart from limes!):
- All twenty recipes include salt and some form of chilies.
- Sixteen recipes use some sort of oil.
- Turmeric appears in all but five recipes.
- Mustard is used by fourteen authors, and almost always the seeds.
- Twelve recipes include garlic, and almost as many also include some ginger.
- Just over half of the recipes include vinegar, and most of them also include sugar.
After that there are a few other ingredients used, but they are less popular, appearing in half the recipes or less.
Let’s have a look at each of the key ingredients in a little more detail.
It might seem like there’s nothing to say about limes, but many of the authors make note of a couple of things to be aware of.
The first is to try to choose thin-skinned limes, because thicker skin tends to make the pickle more bitter. Taste recommend weighing a lime in each hand to find the heavier and therefore juicier ones. A number of the recipes use half of their limes for the pickle and half for their juice, so you could select the thinner skinned ones as you prepare them.
The other point that a number of authors make, also related to bitterness, is to remove as many seeds as possible. Something to keep in mind if you’re not a fan of bitter flavours.
All of the recipes have salt, and many have a lot of it. As one author points out, a lime pickle is meant to be salty, and so it should be used a bit like salt, as a condiment eaten with meals. And if you’re adding it to a curry or other dish, do so before adding salt.
Salt has a couple of roles in these recipes. It’s the primary preservative in most of them. And it’s also used to extract the juice from the limes in a number of recipes. After being cut and packed with it, a number of authors have you leave your salted limes in the sun for several days to accelerate the drying process, and the softening of the skin.
That said, there are a few recipes for an “instant” lime pickle, which require no resting or fermentation time. These recipes use a lot less salt and tend to have shorter shelf lives than the more traditionally prepared pickles.
An Indian lime pickle is meant to be hot (spicy) as well as sour, so all twenty recipes include one or two types of chilies.
The most common by far is ground chili peppers (not a typical chili powder blend). And a number of authors use several tablespoons.
A few recipes use dried chilies, and a few include fresh green chilies together with ground chili pepper.
All but four of the recipes use some type of oil. There are a few different types in use, and significant variation in how much the authors use.
The most common type of oil, appearing in five recipes, is sesame oil or gingelly (a darker coloured Indian sesame oil). After that there’s no common type, but that’s mainly because a number of authors don’t specify what type of oil, instead leaving it up to the reader to decide. Of those that do, mustard oil, coconut oil and vegetable oil each appear once or twice.
The appearance of both sesame oil and mustard oil is not surprising as both are common in Indian cooking. And according to Archana from Archana’s Kitchen, southern Indians use sesame oil and northerners use mustard oil. And this seems true for these recipes. Of the three Keralan and two south Indian recipes, all but one uses sesame oil.
As for quantity, a couple of authors use only two or three tablespoons of oil, while a few use one or two cups. The former mainly use it to fry their spices into a paste, while for the latter oil is a major component of the liquid in their pickles.
Turmeric is very popular in Indian cooking, for both it’s taste and the colour it lends a dish.
Its popularity is no different here, with only five authors not using it in their lime pickle. There doesn’t appear to be any regional bias either, with recipes of every type using it.
Mustard seeds are also very common in Indian cuisine, and a in lime pickle based on these recipes. This time however there does appear to be some regional bias.
Amongst the Goan and Sri Lankan recipes, only one of each includes mustard seeds. And the only other recipe that doesn’t use them is the one from Mombasa (Kenya) on Sabiha’s Kitchen. Of course none of these numbers are high enough to definitively declare these regional variants shouldn’t include mustard seeds, but there’s definitely a pattern amongst the recipes.
One thing worth noting is that almost every recipe that uses mustard seeds cooks them in hot oil at some stage in the preparation of their pickle. Most of the authors even mention that they’ll pop and spit, but this is good. The high heat opens up the seeds, releasing more of their flavour.
Garlic and ginger
These well known aromatics are another two very common ingredients in not just Indian cuisine, but much Asian food as well.
All of the recipes that include them use fresh cloves of garlic and ginger root, typically sliced, crushed or grated.
Many of the recipes that include them are not shy either, with one recipe using forty cloves of garlic, and another four whole heads. It’s the same with ginger as well, with four or five inches of the root appearing in several recipes.
There appears be some regional variation with garlic and ginger, with none of the south Indian or the Sri Lankan recipes including either ingredient. Again, the numbers are not definitive, but certainly suggestive.
Vinegar and sugar
Given that these are pickled limes, I was surprised to find that only half the recipes include vinegar. As mentioned earlier though, salt is a much more dominant preservative here. Not to mention that the acidity of limes will help as well.
The recipes either use white vinegar or don’t specify a type. And like oil, some use a little, like a tablespoon or two, and some use two or more cups.
It’s worth noting that all but one of the recipes with vinegar also includes some sugar, presumably to offset the tartness of the combination of vinegar and lime. White sugar is more popular, although jaggery, a traditional non-processed cane sugar does appear once, as does brown sugar, a good substitute for jaggery.
There are also a couple of regional patterns here too, with all of the Goan and Keralan recipes including both vinegar and sugar.
Although it only appears in four recipes, it is worth mentioning water for its absence.
Most authors do not include water in the pickle mixture. And most make a point of drying your limes well, drying your preserving jar well, and even ensuring you don’t accidentally introduce water with a damp spoon.
This aversion to water is to help protect the shelf life of the pickles. Water is notorious for introducing mould or fungal spores, or allowing them to grow if they’re introduced some other way. This is why vinegar, oil, lime juice or some combination of the three is the preferred pickling liquid.
A number of other ingredients appear amongst the recipes, a few of which are worth mentioning:
- Half the recipes include fenugreek, a very common Indian spice. The seeds have a nutty, maple-like flavour, so much so that they’re used to flavour artificial maple syrup. Fenugreek seeds don’t appear in any of the Goan recipes or in the Kenyan one, and they appear in both south Indian ones. Beyond that, their use is a bit hit and miss. Some of the Keralan and Sri Lankan recipes use them, but not all. They may just be used based on personal preference in other regions.
- Half the recipes include asafoetida, a strongly aromatic (almost rotten smelling) spice. It adds depth and umami to a dish, a lot like onions and garlic. It’s not used in any of the Goan recipes, and only in one each of the Sri Lankan and Keralan ones.
- Five authors use some curry leaves, typically a handful or a sprig or two.
- Cumin, coriander and fennel seeds each appear only a couple of times.
As you can see, there is a lot of variation in the ingredients in a lime pickle, but some consistent foundational ingredients as well.
If you’re interested in understanding the differences between lime pickle from different parts of India (and elsewhere), we can certainly see some here.
Of course I’m not going to pretend this is a definitive guide to regional variations in lime pickles. But based on these 20 recipes, we can see some interesting patterns that could well be explained by local and regional ingredient availability and taste preferences.
And I’ve listed the recipes under their different regions at the bottom of the page.
Goan lime pickle
Hailing from a small state on India’s west coast, the lime pickle recipes that could be identified as Goan had several common themes:
- They all included vinegar and sugar. Apparently vinegar is popular as a result of several centuries of colonisation by the Portuguese.
- They all included garlic, and almost all ginger as well.
- None used fenugreek seeds or asafoetida.
- Almost none included mustard seeds.
And most, but not all, include turmeric.
Keralan lime pickle
Not far south of Goa, the recipes from Kerala had both similarities and differences:
- The all included vinegar and sugar.
- They all used garlic and ginger.
- Two of the three included fenugreek seeds, but only one used asafoetida.
- All of the recipes use mustard seeds.
- They all use a reasonable quantity of oil, and two of the authors specify sesame oil.
And again, most include turmeric.
One other notable difference was the fact that two of the three recipes were for “instant” lime pickle, without a long salting or sunning phase.
South Indian lime pickle
Only a couple of the recipes were identified as south Indian, but they have several things in common:
- Both include a reasonable quantity of sesame oil.
- Both use mustard seeds, fenugreek , asafoetida and turmeric.
- Neither use garlic or ginger.
- And neither use vinegar or sugar.
As you can see, there are significant similarities to the Keralan recipes, which is not surprising given Kerala is a southern state. But there are differences as well. Such is the regionality of food!
Sri Lankan lime pickle
There are a couple of patterns amongst the three recipes from the island of Sri Lanka:
- None use garlic or ginger.
- Only one includes mustard seeds.
- Only one uses any oil, and it’s only a small amount of sesame oil.
- Like the Keralan recipes, two include fenugreek seeds, but only one used asafoetida.
- Two of the three use turmeric.
- Half of the four recipes that add water are Sri Lankan.
And like the Keralan and Goan recipes, most but not all include turmeric.
It’s worth noting that the Sri Lankan recipe that uses mustard seeds and asafoetida is a Tamil recipe. Sri Lankan Tamils share much of their culture with the large southern Indian region of Tamil Nadu. And as we saw above, south Indian recipes typically include these ingredients. So the regional lines are both shared and blurry.
Kenyan lime pickle
There’s only one recipe from Africa, but it’s worth mentioning because it is quite different to the Indian and Sri Lankan varieties.
Compared with the others, it has very few ingredients. It is just limes, salt, garlic, ginger, turmeric and chili pepper (2 types), making a much simpler and less spiced lime pickle than the other varieties.
“Indian” lime pickle
The rest of the recipes are either simply called Indian, or just lime pickle. It’s not clear where they hail from across the huge nation, but they have a couple of distinct similarities:
- They all use oil, but there are several varieties.
- They all include mustard seed.
After that, there’s lots of variation in every other ingredient. Turmeric and asafoetida are very common, but don’t appear in every recipe. Vinegar, garlic and ginger all make appearances, but none in more than half the recipes.
I could try to assign them to particular regions based on their ingredients, and most could fit in one or more of the categories above. But it’s also quite possible these recipes are amalgams of more than one region, or westernised variations as well.
Preparing a lime pickle takes time
I won’t go into the process in detail, because it is quite involved, and each author has a different approach. But there is one major factor to be aware of if you’re looking to choose a recipe that suits you the best.
All but three of the recipes have a period where the limes are left (usually just salted) to dry, soften and in some cases ferment. This is usually done in the sun, or at least somewhere warm.
A few recipes do this in a few days, but several require three or four weeks. And almost every author advises that the longer you can leave your finished lime pickle to sit before consuming it, the better the flavour will be. Most recommend a minimum of a week after completing the process, and several suggest about a month. This time also helps reduce any bitterness.
As I mentioned earlier, there are three recipes for an “instant” pickle, which cook the limes to soften them. Because they haven’t been dried like the other recipes, and therefore contain more water, these will not tend to last as well as the other recipes (days as opposed to weeks or months). And the authors typically recommend refrigerating this type of pickle.
Keeping bitterness at bay
I’ve mentioned these points separately above, but they’re worth reiterating, especially given that quite a few readers of these recipes asked the authors for help with bitter lime pickles.
A number of authors highlight three factors that influence the bitterness of your lime pickle:
- Lime skin. Thicker skins are more bitter, so where possible, choose thinner skinned limes. Choosing more ripe limes will help with this, especially those that are beginning to turn yellow.
- Lime seeds. The seeds are quite bitter, so make sure you remove as many as possible.
- Time. Several authors note how your lime pickle will mellow with time. More than one simply says “the longer, the better”.
Keeping these things in mind will help manage the bitterness of your lime pickle. And if all else fails, you can add sugar to offset too much bitterness.
The essence of making your own Indian lime pickle
As you can see there’s lots of variety amongst the different regional and other variants of an “Indian” lime pickle. So you can definitely find one that will suit if there are particular ingredients you can’t find, or just don’t like.
Making lime pickle at home is not difficult, but it is time consuming and the recipes all follow slightly different paths. So it’s worth choosing a recipe and sticking with it, at least the first time you give it a go.
Hopefully this review has helped you to do just that, because a lime pickle is a delicious and unique condiment that is really worth a try, especially if you enjoy a good curry. And a number of the authors recommend simply eating them with parathas, the Indian flat bread, which sound seven better! Or if you want to try a western twist, what about a cheese and lime pickle sandwich?
Wondering whether you really want to give this a go? Try a store-bought option first. A lot of people rave about Patak’s lime pickle.
Patak’s medium heat lime pickle on Amazon.
Recipes included in this review
Goan lime pickle recipes
- Lime Pickle | Goan Pickle Recipe – Celebration In My Kitchen
- Lime Pickle – Goa Holiday Homes
- Sticky Lime Pickle – Delicious Cravings At Vania’s Kitchen
- Lime pickle (sweet) – Delicious memories with Alves Fernandes
Keralan lime pickle recipes
- Spicy Lime Pickle Recipe (Naranga Achaar) – Archana’s Kitchen
- SWEET LIME PICKLE Recipe – Food52
- Kerala Lime Pickle Recipe (Naranga Achar) – Snazzy Cuisine
Sri Lankan lime pickle recipes
- Lunu Dehi – Traditional Sri Lankan Pickle Recipe – 196 flavors
- Lime pickle – A Taste of Sri Lankan cuisine
- Lime Pickle – My Tamil Kitchen
South Indian lime pickle recipes
- Elumichampazham Urugai (Lime Pickle – South Indian Style) – My Diverse Kitchen
- South Indian lime pickle – Bawarchi
Indian lime pickle recipes
- Indian lime pickle
- Lime Pickle Recipe | Indian Lime Pickle | THE CURRY GUY
- Nimbu Ka Achaar (Lime Pickle) Recipe
- Indian Lime Pickle | Fermentation Recipe
- Simon Majumdar – Fiery Hot Lime Pickle
- nimbu ka achar recipe | instant lime pickle recipe | nimbu achar
- Umma’s Lime Pickle without Water