Earning the title of the ‘Pickle Queen of India’ is no easy feat. What earned Chennai-based Usha Prabakaran this title was Usha’s Pickle Digest, a laborious piece of work that took over 15 years to complete. The book contains over 1,000 pickle recipes sourced from generations of family members and friends and is considered a bible for pickle lovers all over the world.
Prabakaran recalls the days when she was newly married and introduced to the simple yet elegant world of vegetarian cooking.
“Not a day passed by without my mother-in-law preparing a variety of pickles, chutneys, thuvayal, podis, and wafers (vathals, vadams, and vadagams) during the summer months,” she tells The Better India. “Her cooking repertoire was difficult to replicate because there were so many nuances to it. Besides, she belonged to the old school, who knew everything by the handful, fistful, pinch, ollock, padi, and so on. Spoons and weighing machines were alien to her.”
‘No fuss, no mystique’
She says her tryst with pickling began in the late ’80s when she would watch her mother-in-law prepare elaborate dishes. Before this, she says, she knew next to nothing about cooking. Her family, and mother, in particular, believed it was an affair that could be rustled up in 30-35 minutes. “My mother didn’t believe in elaborate meals, but whatever she prepared was tasty,” Prabakran says.
“My father-in-law would dutifully take me to the market and I began mastering the fine art of buying vegetables and fruits, judging whether they were tender or past their prime,” she recalls.
Over the years, Prabakaran went through an extensive learning process, where she tried new recipes she gathered from her husband’s family, relatives, friends, and acquaintances. She says writing a book was never on the cards. She adds that everything she would prepare — from pickles to chutneys and podis —would vanish so fast that she would rarely get to taste her own food.
“On the suggestion of friends and family, I began handing out a list of around 25 recipes each, which eventually piled up to around 5,000. Sifting, sieving and selecting the best 1,000 among them was not easy, as I was head over heels in love with every one of my recipes.”
But sift and sieve she did, and these 1,000 recipes eventually became Usha’s Pickle Digest, published in 1998. The book has been divided into nine sections — Classique, Unique Flavours, Exclusive, Exotic, Quick Serve, Assorted, Oil-Free, Dietary, and Anti-Waste. It also includes notes on how to detect contaminants in ingredients, the vitamin and mineral content of the raw material and health benefits of some pickles.
“I studied and understood the need to be methodical in making available clean and dry spoons and jars, sun dried and home ground masalas, and organic and nutritious vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices and oils. Pickles are not complicated in their preparation. Almost all recipes can be prepared in the average kitchen — there’s no fuss and no mystique, only rewarding authenticity,” Prabakaran notes.
However, before the book could hit the stores, Prabakaran was diagnosed with brain tumour and her health deteriorated. “Three months after two brain surgeries, I started reading about and preparing pickles in the wee hours of the morning,” she says.
Humorously, she recalls, “Once in passing, my son asked me if I could conjure up a pickle from bubble gum. I’m still trying to fathom the meaning of that seemingly innocent question.”
Preserving India’s past
Her personal favourites from the recipe book include the cooling mango ginger pickle, the immunity-boosting garlic pickle, multi-spiced and versatile mango avakkai pickle, and the anti-diabetic magical tailed fenugreek sprouts pickle. “I also love the freshly prepared curd gooseberry pickle, the drumstick pickle, which is hot, sweet and sour, the mahani pickle in spiced buttermilk, refreshing green tomato pickle, and the iron-rich banana flower pickle,” she says.
Talking about the significance of this book, Prabakaran says, “The whole world realised that food plays a major role in disease prevention only in the 20th century, but ancient India seems to have realised this much earlier. The medicinal potential of spices and oils has been underestimated. The linkage between the past and future of medicine is much more important, and can give us new directions for understanding health and disease.”
She goes on to add, “Pickles were introduced by our ancestors to overcome the negative outturn of several food items. Besides being mouth-watering, the spices and seasoning have established characteristics that help the body in particular functions. For example, ginger, asafoetida, and turmeric are all considered good digestives. Cumin and cardamom are cooling, and clove and cinnamon are warming. Pepper and mint are good for the common cold. Garlic is useful in treating hypertension. Red chillies in small doses offer antiseptic action. Tamarind acts as an antiseptic and laxative. Spices are important in promoting health.”
In terms of publishing, Prabakaran says, “Publishers quoted high figures, which I could not afford, as I was just a beginner and not well-versed in the trade. It did not even carry my mail id, and many tried to locate me for close to a decade. And so, I self-published.”
Over 1,000 copies were printed and gifted by Prabakaran herself, but in the initial period of the book being published, getting hands on a hard copy was tough. She notes that ascertaining the exact number of copies sold thus far would be hard. The book was photocopied and passed around for free, but she says she took great pleasure in this.
Rasam — the ‘jack of all trades’
‘Pickle Queen of India’ is not the only title that Prabakaran holds. She’s also known as the ‘Rasam Queen of India’. “My previous book was written to demystify the myth that pickle preparation was difficult and cumbersome. While doing my research, rasams, which were then not much tried or experimented with, caught my attention. The idea was to string together recipes that ranged from spicy to sour and sweet, light as air or broth-like, and those that made use of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices. Rasam can also ward off many diseases.”
Owing to two more major brain surgeries, writing her book had to be put on hold for about 5 years, except for occasional trials for when she was feeling up to it. Once Prabakaran’s health improved, her work on Usha’s Rasam Digest began. This book contains 1,000 rasam recipes, which can be prepared in minutes and keep health issues in check.
She says she chose rasam as the subject of her second book for a myriad of reasons. “Rasam can be tailor-made to address various health concerns. It can range from simple to exotic. It takes little time to prepare, which is a boon for office goers, and is budget friendly. It can be fiery and pungent, or soothing and mellow, depending on your palate. It’s unbelievably accommodating — anything and everything can make a rasam, including any dal, any sour item, a spice mix…that’s all it takes.”
The extensive rasam book has recipes that use a vast range of ingredients, including tomato, pepper, ghee, cumin, jaggery, milk, curd, mustard seeds, coriander, and curry leaf, to name a few. The book also has certain tips to get the most out of a warm, soothing bowl of rasam. “The key to making appetising rasam lies not only in selecting the right spices, but also adding them in the correct sequence, and seasoning them fittingly. Seasoning of spices and herbs is an age-old method to extract the complete flavour of the spices.”
On how she feels about the titles she holds, Prabakaran says, “I have always been passionate with regards to any task I do. My books are truly a labour of love, and while I’m very happy with these titles, I never worked towards that goal. My aim has always been to give my best. This happened by chance and I consider myself fortunate to have spread the diversity and variety of India’s rich culinary heritage.”
“It would not be a misnomer to term every household in India as a ‘gourmet kitchen’. The regional diversity of our country, abounding with its rich and varied vegetables, fruits, spices, herbs, and cooking variations have made it possible to write on any culinary subject,” she says.
Edited by Yoshita Rao