Friday, September 29, 2006

Interview with Usha Prabhakaran author of Usha's Pickle digest

Interview with Usha Prabhakaran author of Usha's Pickle digest

Usha Prabhakaran is the self published author of "Ushas Pickle digest", "The perfect Pickle book" as it says on the cover. A thick volume of 365 pages, the book contains exactly 1000 recipes, is meticulously researched, perfectly cross-referenced and according to my friend Vikram Doctor food columnist with ETworth it for the multilingual ingredient glossary alone. (In fact it was Vikram who showed me the book almost a year an a half ago. He had found it at Landmark bookstores in Chennai.)

Always fascinated with the idea of pickles and its associated traditions - I was intrigued to hear of this extremely well put together book. Unfortunately by the time I went looking for it not a single book store in India had a copy left. I kept looking for the author, Usha Prabhakaran and her book off an on with the help of friends until we finally managed to get a number for her.

Untill the moment I called her I knew her as the author of an excellent book that had been self published (and anyone who has tried to sell a book to an Indian publisher will recognize that as a feat in itself) but after I spoke to her my respect and admiration became awe and inspiration. Not only did I find out that Usha had survived a fatal disease but she the disease had struck the day her book was published.

Here is an interview I have conducted of her via the internet and on the phone.

When did you decide to write a book on pickles and what made you decide to write a book about pickles?

Whoever had the opportunity of eating my pickles liked them very much and I found myself meticulously writing down the recipes for them. That is when the seed for a pickle book was planted in my mind. After all the pickle is a great subject to write about because it is compatible with almost any dish, can be easily adopted to suit available ingredients, countries and palates and following canons of pickling allows for them to be prepared without much difficulty. Also store bought pickles have preservatives added to them which can be avoided if the pickles are prepared at home which is an added advantage and of course home made pickles are always tastier, being made with first quality ingredients.

How did you go about your research, which were some of the people you spoke to?

Whenever and wherever I taste something new, I instantly approach the person that made it without any hesitation whatsoever and tell them how tasty their recipe was and ask if I could jot down the preparation method. My book is a tribute to the many housewives in general and to the Komitti Chettar community in particular, who generously and painstakingly shared their recipes with me, happy in the knowledge that the information they parted with will be documented and be part of a valuable pickle recipe book.

Did you learn anything unusual from any older person you spoke with during your research?

I found all the old persons as a rule very disciplined and fastidious. Pickling required that there should be no moisture of any sort in the containers, the vegetables should be dry, adequate salt should be added, the pickle should be steeped in oil etc. Experienced hands were extremely particular with vegetable, spice and oil selection, they used pickle jars that had been washed and dried in the sun and were particular about using home ground spices (chili, turmeric, asafetida, fenugreek etc. as much as possible doing the grinding themselves in many cases, no matter how tedious, or tiring, because they believed much of the end result depended on these things.

Is there anyone you spoke to in your research of recipes whom you will never forget?

Apart from my mom-in-law, I had a neighbor - a very close friend of my mother's – who taught me all I needed to know about Andhra pickling but I can safely say that I did not spare any person who I felt would add some value to my book.

What made you decide to self-publish?

Publishing a book means finding a publisher worth the name and finding one such is not that easy to come by, if the effort happens to be your first one. So I decided to go it alone – it gives you such a sense of pride and achievement, believe me. I have not for one moment regretted it, although the book would have sold faster with glossy pictures et al. and been a more economic deal with greater visibility, if published by an established publisher.

Did you have problems publishing your book? What hurdles did you face?

As already mentioned, the publishers I went to – the ones who you think you would like to be associated with - placed restrictions: time wise/other publisher-wise/money-wise etc. These were not things I could accept. Deep in my heart I knew, a good thing would speak for itself.

Why do you think pickling has been popular in India?

India is blessed with cheap and plentiful availability of a staggering variety of vegetables, fruits, spices and oils. It is no wonder then that pickling has always been popular in India. India being a hot country, hot spicy foods such as pickles which perk up any meal and whose diversity is well recognized are key features of Indian cuisine. This is especially true of South India. Pickles go well with rice, idli, dosa, chappathi (and all other Indian breads), puri, parathas etc. Naturally every community and every family has a tradition of pickling.

How did you become interested in pickles?

My mother-in-law hails from the Komitti Chettiar family, originally from Andhra Pradesh, with a long and highly regarded tradition of pickle making. After every visit to her place, I would return home with bottles of tasty, mouth-watering delicacies. I wanted to document these pickle recipes so that they would not be lost to posterity.

What have you found are some of the major differences between pickles from different parts of India?

Although mango is the preferred base vegetable for pickling, the fundamental variation is that in the north the pickles are made with chilly powder, turmeric powder, garam masala, vinegar or lime juice, sugar and mustard oil, while in the south, the same pickle is prepared with chilly powder, turmeric powder, asafoetida, tamarind extract or lime juice, jaggery and gingelly oil. In the north, east and west, the preference is for sweet and sour pickles. In the south, the sweet portion is hardly visible. Besides these pickles being made at home, no artificial preservatives are used.

In your research have you found any health risks related to pickled foods?

Pickled foods do not cause health risks. If a person is already suffering from ailments, she/he can be selective in the choice of pickles. In general because of the spices used in them, pickles stimulate the appetite, aid digestion, cool the system, cure cough and cold etc. You will be amazed at the highly spiced Andhra avakkai ( A.P) being consumed in enormous quantity, with little or no side effects. This could be attributed to the large consumption of ghee.

On the positive side, you have propagated that pickles can be effective in treating various ailments, Can you elaborate on that?

The spice and seasoning used in pickling have clearly defined attributes that help the body in specific functions. Spices are anti-oxidants, so they act as free-radical scavengers. Pickles contain essential oils that help to kill bacteria in the intestinal tract.

Ginger, asafoetida and turmeric are all considered digestives. They are pickled with beans or split peas to fight off their hard–to-digest stubbornness. Mint does the same thing. It also kills germs. Asafoetida is considered a nerve tonic; Cumin and green cardamom are cooling, clove and cinnamon are warming, ginger is good for the cold, raw garlic is good for circulatory ailments or jangled nerves, red chilies in small doses have antiseptic properties, black pepper promotes appetite and acts as a tonic for new mothers.

When reading your book you soon realize how many variations of food can get pickled. Was there any food that you were surprised to find in a pickle recipe?

Sure, I will give you an example. I generally look for great variety in food that can be pickled. I was truly amazed when I learnt that hibiscus flower is a good base material for pickle making.

Do you think it is important to preserve traditional recipes and food lore? If yes, why?

Indeed, there can be no doubt that traditional pickle recipes and food lore should be preserved. Pickling is an art and as in the case of all art forms, pickling is time consuming, but if left unrecorded, the recipes and the food lore that go with them will be lost to posterity. Traditional methods can often be laborious and time consuming, but the final product is tasty.

What are some of your favorite recipes out of your book?

Some of the favorite recipes from my book are small red onion in tamarind sauce (27), sweet and sour orange peel (30), plantain flower – hot (32), stuffed kalakkai chain – oil less (70), curd gooseberry – green chilly- watery (490).

What was the first pickle you made?

Mango-ginger was the pickle I experimented with first and most of my friends still love it. It is easy to make, the peeled slices of mango-ginger are combined with chopped garlic, a few strands of green pepper and tossed in salt and lemon juice. The pickle required frequent turning to prevent spoilage and lasts for up to 10 days at room temperature and about a month in the refrigerator.

Which is your favorite pickle to make now?

Gooseberry pickle in whipped curd is a pickle I like to prepare. All you have to do is whip up some curd (yogurt) with turmeric powder, salt and a generous amount of water and whip well again, steam the gooseberries and remove their segments, reserve but discarding the seeds. Heat oil and season with mustard seed, green chilly, curry leaves and stir into the whipped curd mix. Add in the gooseberry segments and mix well. The pickle can be used after a few hours and stores well up to a month in the refrigerator.

What is your favorite pickle to eat, do you like sweet pickles, spicy ones or sour ones?

I love spicy pickles with a dash of sweetness and sourness. I don't much fancy sweet pickles and I love the Methi sprouts pickle because it's health-giving properties. Methi seeds are soaked in the water for about 8 hours then drained and wrapped up in a damp cloth. The cloth is to be constantly moistened, to ensure that the sprouts appear. When the sprouts reach the desired length i.e. 1cm. approximately, the sprouts are pickled with tamarind extract, chilly powder, turmeric powder, asafoetida powder, jaggery and salt boiled in oil. The sprouts are to be sautéed for a very short time, because otherwise the pickle will become bitter.

Which was the most unusual pickle you come across in your research?

On a visit to the home of one of my husband's relatives I was told that I could create a great pickle out of curry leaf seeds. I tried it out and found it out to be out of this world. Not only was it delicious, it is also rich in vitamin A & D, and good for hair growth.

I know you are working on your second book on Rasams. Could you tell me more about Rasams?

Rasams are usually watery sometimes thicker, concoctions made from different vegetables, fruits, grains or combinations of these, with the addition of cooked dals and seasoned with ghee or oil. The seasoning normally contains a few spices like mustard seeds, curry leaves, asafoetida, cumin seeds etc. There are rasams prepared from grains, plain and sprouted, leafy greens, herbs, vegetables and fruits.

When will the book be published?

Usha's Rasam Digest is likely to be published in 2 months' time.

What are some of the interesting recipes you have covered in it?

You would be surprised to find rasam being prepared from waste vegetable materials like peas pods of fresh green peas along with ginger, green chilly and onion, addition of powdered pepper and cumin and seasoned with cumin seeds and crushed garlic seasoned in ghee.

Unripe tomato rasam is a favorite with me. When we utter the word rasam it conjures up images of a ripe tomato in tamarind sauce but this is not the case here. Here the rasam with tender green tomato is pressure-cooked with toor dal, turmeric powder and gingelly oil. Later, the rasam mix is boiled with rasam powder, salt and seasoned with mustard and asafoetida powder fried in ghee.

What advice do you have for people who wish to write a book and self publish?

Writing keeps the mind active and writing or working on a subject one likes does not tire a person too much. Self – publish one must because, although it costs a little more, one can be proud of it at the same time.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Hour of the Goddess, Memories of Women, Food and Ritual in Bengal

Chitrita Banergee, Publisher - Penguin Price Rs. 195

In The Hour of the Goddess: Memories of Women, Food and Ritual in Bengal, Chitrita Banerji is eloquent and erudite as she demonstrates the place of food in Bengali culture in prose that is as light as a luchi "set afloat (in oil) like a paper-boat". The food memoir, by the writer from Calcutta now based in the US is a delight whether she is describing the famed Bengali penchant for fish, the quintessential Bengali five spice mix - Panchphoron, bitter flavours, the versatility of Bengali widows with their food despite the strict food proscriptions forced on them and the discovery and subsequent journey the Bengali Sandesh to iconic status. Unlike some memoirs that include recipes which are incomplete or half baked, the recipes at the end of each chapter in this book were authentic, and easy to follow. The addition of occaisional annecdotes and friendly advice almost gives the illusion that Banerji is standing by you guiding you through the recipe. The hour of the goddess bares the longing of a woman for idyllic bygone days, gently reminding us that change may be all around us but it is possible to stop for a moment and indulge in a spot of nostalgia with a traditional family recipe. All read and cooked, The hour of the Goddess is aromatic with Panch phoron and delicious!

Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal

Monday, March 20, 2006

Cookbooks - Excuses to cooking up to a collection!

Excuses to cooking up to a collection!
It sneaks into your life stealthily; the addiction to cookbooks; it has no prevention and there is no cure! With no warning and all very innocently, the bug bites you. You are gifted your first cookbook with an “it’s amazing; you will never need another…” And you don’t, not really, not as long as you are cooking “quick meals for newly married couples” that is... 

The bug lies in you dormant until one evening, right in the middle of weeping your way through a deliciously spicy Hot and Sour Soup at your favorite restaurant it awakens and you wonder… “Could I make this at home…?” The virus multiplies all the way home as you calculate the cost of a lifetimes worth of Hot and Sour soups and the savings you will accrue with one measly recipe book… (Uh huh, count your chickens why don’t you…).
A quick stop at the bookstore the next day proves futile. 20 books on Chinese food and none of them have your recipe. Martin Yan’s book (watched his show on Star Plus eons ago) “Quick and easy” has a recipe for a “Pineapple Hot and Sour soup” which is not what you are looking for but  the other recipes look interesting so you just pick it up, promising to pass it on to mom later…
Since the Chinese shelves prove futile, logic leads you to the Soups section… A quick reiki results in “Splendid Soups” by James Peterson, it’s been getting rave reviews off late. Speedy perusal reveals a recipe but it isn’t “Yours”. That established, you still leaf through the book, the pictures are so beautiful and there is so much interesting information on Soup, you absolutely love soups so why not… Into the basket it goes!
You’re in line at the checkout counter and there’s a strategically placed pile of the new Penguin release, Rude food by Vir Sanghvi staring up at you, begging to be picked up! Your turn to pay and time is short. You add it to the basket. After all it seems like the perfect book for your daily commute, seeing as it’s a compilation of his articles on food and the chapters will end before you get to your destination.
You just can’t wait to try out something from your new books so you gloat through the yummy soup book and decide to make the Thai Chicken and Coconut soup, the “Gai Tom Ka” is an unqualified success. It even saves you a lecture in the merits of saving money from the husband! Hmm might be worth it to pick up a book on Thai cuisine…
Than night you realize that someone up there is in your corner! Halfway through Rude Food (full of interesting trivia, like Caviar being stale unless eaten at source, Vanilla essences in India being synthetic and enlightening info on the Fat content of Ice cream) you find out that Chinese food in India is not Chinese at all but a cuisine in it’s own right! Another trip to the bookstore in which you make a beeline for the Indian shelves, pick up Sanjeev Kapoor’s “best of Chinese cooking” taking two seconds to verify your recipe is in there and off you go … err not quite… Wait a minute! Thai food by David Thompson on sale? You just HAVE to pick it up!
The success of the Thai experiment leads to you picking up books like Authentic Mexican by Rick Bayless and Hot Sour Salty Sweet - Jeffrey Alford (which is totally awesome by the way). One Saturday afternoon, as the aroma from your Spanish Paella suffuses your kitchen, you realize that you’ve been around the world in your kitchen but really ought to know more about Indian food. Home comes The Indian Kitchen - which promises to be “A book of essential ingredients with over 200 easy and authentic recipes” - by Monisha Bharadwaj and Microwave Cooking for the Indian Palate by Bapsi Nariman (you know since you have a microwave and all…)
A Fresh Turmeric Pickle recipe, from the Indian Kitchen reminds you of your childhood in your Gujarati Maternal home, you realize that you hardly know anything about the food you ate growing up! You call your mom asking where you can get a book on the subject and before you can say “Undhiyu”, On the threshold of Kitchen, a compendium of recipes by the Danthi  sisters – in – law is in your hands, appropriately inscribed with the blessings “rasodani rani banje” (may you be the queen of your kitchen and please everyone) on the fly leaf!
After the Turmeric pickle receives rave reviews from your FATHER IN LAW (big achievement if your mother in law is a Pickle making legend) you decide you want to add to your pickle repertoire (yeah right, of ONE pickle). It strikes you to surf the net (that took it’s time happening!) and you happen on this amazing website on food. No pickle books to be found but you hook up with some serious food lovers!
Later, the pages on Asafetida in The Indian Kitchen have you thinking that it would be interesting to find out more about the history of Indian food. After “Googling” (suddenly we’re very trigger happy with the internet) we head to the bookstore name in hand and trip over one cookbook crazy friend from said website above. Two hours and much browsing later, you breeze out of the store with a lighter wallet but much heavier bag!
It’s been a productive afternoon!  You’ve found a book on Pickles – Achaar Aur Parathe by Tarla Dalal to tide you over (until you get your hands on Usha's Pickle Digest that comes so highly recommended by the Cookbook collector friend) and also found the other book you were looking for - The Historical Dictionary of Indian Food by K.T.Achaya. That’s not all, (after being recommended by cookbook collecting friend) Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible - an investigation into how the Indian diasporas adapted their recipes to new lands - and 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi – an exploration of the curry, dissecting steps and investigating ingredients along the way – have also come aboard. 
Et Voila! You realize that you have effectively gone from owner of single dog-eared food-smeared cookbook to Cookbook collector! Your bookshelf groans with shiny, glossy, new cookbooks… There will be no turning back from here. Cheers to that! Which reminds me, I wonder if there is a book on Beer…?