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Adding spice to life

Usha Prabhakaran's fascination for spices prodded her to research on pickles. And the result is her pickle digest, which contains recipes of lip-smacking varieties.

PICKLES ARE her passion. And she pursues the art of pickle making to perfection.

Lavishing care on each stage of the operation — selecting, grinding, sieving, blending, frying and garnishing — Usha R. Prabhakaran makes sure her pickles turn out just right. To fans of rasam too, Usha shows the way to rare recipes.

Vegetables, fruits, berries and gourds bring a gleam to Usha's eye for they are the raw materials to be turned into pungent delicacies. Even leaves, shoots and roots, the Plain Janes of the vegetable world, are dressed up with vinegar, salt and spices to find their form undergoing a delectable transformation. A dash of turmeric, scoops of freshly ground chilli powder, and ladlefuls of oil — even jaded palates are tempted by these unusual creations.

Usha has compiled a digest, which is a pickle lover's delight. Her book has 1,000 recipes and offers a staggering variety of salted delicacies.

Usha, a lawyer who headed the legal division of a leading firm, has certainly followed the dictates of her heart. She gave up her job to turn to pickling research full time. Encouraged by her husband and family she has been able to devote her energies to her fascination for spices.

``India is the spice shell and a paradise for all those who are interested in the culinary art as it has an astounding number of regional variations,'' says Usha. Pickle making is an art that is dying out in the country with bottles of factory-made pickles replacing grandma's specials. In contrast to these bottled preparations which contain chemical preservatives such as sulphur dioxide and sodium benzoate, only natural preservatives are used in my recipes,'' says Usha.

Food doesn't have to be spicy to be good, she firmly believes. With the right harmony and balance of ingredients it can taste delicious. And this formula holds good for pickles as well. She adds that contrary to common belief, spices possess a lot of health value. She reels off their benefits. Black pepper improves the appetite; cumin and green cardamom have cooling properties while red chillies in small doses have an antiseptic action. Ginger, asafoetida and turmeric act as digestives.

The craze for pickling techniques consumed Usha even from her college days. ``Of course, my friends were amused by this but I was very curious about spices and would pick up recipes from friends, guests and cooks at weddings. ``Five star hotel chefs would obligingly give me computer printouts of their recipes,'' she laughs. ``Old women in the rural areas are valuable repositories of knowledge and what's more, they can logically explain why a particular method is adopted for the preparation of a certain kind of pickle and also, the unique value of each ingredient. Although I went along with my dad's idea and qualified for the interview of the Indian Administrative Service, unlike my sister, Sheela Rani Chunkath, I was not keen on it."

Usha can spend hours in ensuring that a pickle turns out to her complete satisfaction. ``I love to potter around with my jars after the family goes to bed. In fact, when my son, Prajnesh, was four he said, ``Mummy you are always making pickles. Why don't you make one for me with bubble-gum?''

Ten years of pickling research has gone into her book, which took her two years to write. Apart from the 1000 recipes ("it was quite a job choosing them for I had gathered so many more") the digest has a wealth of information. Enough to go into three books, says Usha. Vegetable craft, base preparations, guidelines on buying and storing of vegetables and fruits, cooking methods chart and preparation of spice powders are among the features.

"Usually, the indexing is recipe-based in books. But in the digest it is done on the basis of the raw material, so that it's easy to pick out recipes for the fruit or vegetable available during the season.

``It is a misconception that pickle making is a time- consuming process. I have a chapter in the book titled `Two minute pickles' which shows how excellent results can be achieved in record time.''

Looking at Usha today, cheerful and articulate, it is difficult to believe she had such a setback in health a few years ago. Just a few days before the book was to be published, she collapsed one night while talking to a friend on the telephone. Rushed to hospital, she was diagnosed with a rare fungal infection of the brain, which has a 70 per cent fatality rate. Battling through it, she was back on her feet in three months' time. And back to her culinary efforts in another three months. ``The most encouraging moment was when my book was brought to me in hospital a week after I was admitted there.''

``When it comes to pickle making or cooking for that matter, the fire is important. But without dedication everything is lost,'' says Usha who has quite a few projects lined up — books on rasam, side dishes (especially unusual Kootus), easy recipes for those who travel or stay abroad as well as quick lunches for kids. ``With that special mother's touch that makes all the difference,'' she twinkles.

Usha's Pickle Digest is available at Landmark, Odyssey and Higgin Botham's bookshops.

* * *

Try it out...

Mint - Dried Red Chilli - Tamarind: Hot
500 g mint leaves, wash and air-dry
20 g mustard seeds: for seasoning
250 g cleaned tamarind, obtain thick extract using water
75 g jaggery, grate
140 g dried red chillies, roast in oil and powder
20 g turmeric powder
20 g fenugreek seeds and
20 g asafoetida, roast both in oil and powder
150 g salt
250 ml oil

1.Stir-fry the mint leaves in little oil. Allow to cool, grind fine and set aside.

2.In the same pan, heat some more oil, add mustard seeds and allow to crackle.

3. Follow with tamarind extract, jaggery, salt and bring to boil. Allow to thicken over high flame.

4. Lower heat, stir in chilli, turmeric, fenugreek, asafoetida powders and mint paste.

5. Continue cooking for about 20 minutes, adding the remaining oil little by little.

6. Remove when mixture thickens and oil separates.

7. The pickle is ready for use. Lasts for two months.

KAUSALYA SANTHANAM

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