The cookbook containing 1,000 pickle recipes sourced from friends, family and well-wishers, was put together over several years.

Ushas Pickle Digest How a TN woman wrote the ultimate guide for fans of the condiment
news Food Saturday, June 01, 2019 - 17:17

Usha R Prabakaran learned that there was a certain magic in pickle from her mother-in-law. A skilled home cook, her mother-in-law would regularly make at least three pickles or chutneys in the course of a week, even as she churned out traditional dishes at a moment’s notice in their home in Andhra Pradesh. Usha recalls being given a share of that week’s pickle, neatly bottled and ready for her and her husband to devour.  

“It inculcated a fondness in me for anything pickle,” she says in an interview with TNM. “There was a special magic in her pickle that I liked to eat and also prepare with ease.”

Usha’s love for pickle didn’t just stay in her kitchen. In 1998, she published Usha’s Pickle Digest, a cookbook containing 1,000 pickle recipes collected over several years from friends, family and well-wishers. Though the book is almost impossible to find today — only about 1,000 copies were printed in the first edition — 21 years after its publication, it has left its mark. The cookbook has been called a “Bible” for pickle lovers and Usha has been dubbed “the pickle queen of India.”

TNM spoke to Usha, 63, a retired lawyer who lives in Chennai, about her journey to the Pickle Digest and the art of pickle-making.

25 recipes to 1,000

Once Usha found her passion for pickling, she translated her interest to the kitchen without too much difficulty. She recalled making batches of pickle that would be polished off by friends, with little to none left for her family. She tried to prepare more than she thought they needed, but it never seemed to be enough. Though she loved making pickle, the process of making large quantities eventually grew a bit tiresome. So instead, she started to write down recipes and hand them over to friends.

That triggered a long journey of sourcing recipes from friends, relatives, acquaintances and cooks, she said. What started as a selection of 25 recipes grew bigger and bigger, with each new preparation that she added to her collection. Step by step in meticulous fashion, Usha documented these recipes, some of which were family traditions or secrets that well-wishers were willing to part with.

She ended up with scores of recipes, tested and culled down to 1,000 for her book. The book is divided into nine sections — Classique, Unique Flavours, Exclusive, Exotic, Quick Serve, Assorted, Oil Free, Dietary and Anti Waste — and also has several educational charts, including one for detecting adulterants and another to show the mineral and vitamin content of commonly-pickled fruits, vegetables and grains. She has also included the health benefits of certain kinds of homemade pickles.

But Usha’s mission wasn’t just to document, but to teach. She wanted to break misconceptions that pickle-making had to be tedious work. Everyone, from the “passionate cook” to the “ardent beginner,” could fall in love with pickle.  

“Pickle making remains a mystery to most. The purpose of this work is to demystify. I’ve never found it necessary to overcomplicate the preparation of any pickle. Almost all the recipes can be prepared in the average kitchen - No fuss - No mystique. Only rewarding authenticity,” she writes in the book’s introduction.

The art of pickle-making

Pickle is one of India’s most prized and diverse condiments - which is evident, considering the vast and varying range of fruits, vegetables, meats and spices typical to different parts of the country that are pickled. Even with the staggering number of recipes Usha found, she realised that she had barely scratched the surface.

“Anything and everything can be converted into a spicy pickle,” she said. “A person with not much means can make do with a roti and pickle and, if lucky, some curd to wash it down,” she added.  

One of her favourite recipes from the book is her version of avakkai pickle. The book also holds a recipe for mango ginger pickle, which was her mother's favourite, made with thinly sliced mango ginger bits and spiced with green chilli slivers, lemon juice and salt. All of the recipes in her book contain natural preservatives, though the similarities end there — from tamarind-based preparations to ones steeped in whipped buttermilk to others made with Himalayan gooseberry or garlic or gongura and much more. If prepared properly, the pickle could keep for months and sometimes years.

Though the art of pickle-making is not nearly as popular as it was in previous decades, Usha believes the younger generation will soon start picking it up again. As people become more and more health conscious, many will start to turn away from store-bought pickles, which contain additives and preservatives.

“People buy from stores owing to paucity of time, not because they prefer to buy them,” she said. “The trend is changing.”

Usha is currently working on a new book, Usha’s Rasam Digest, which will contain 1,000 rasam recipes, though chronic health issues have hampered her ability to work. She also hopes to publish the Pickle Digest and the Rasam Digest as e-books in the near future.

“Pickle preparation is varied and limitless from home to home, region to region and state to state. If we don’t learn them soon enough, these recipes will be lost to posterity forever,” she said.

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