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.