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From spiced mango to drumstick pith: How Usha Prabakaran's book changed the way we tasted pickles

'Usha’s Pickle Digest' shares 1000 traditional and off-beat recipes of pickles.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Aug 04, 2019, 11.04 AM IST
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Prabakaran’s new project is about rasams. She has been collecting and trying recipes with the same dedication she showed towards pickles.
'Usha’s Pickle Digest' appeared mysteriously in a few Chennai bookshops in the early 2000s. Nobody seemed to know who the author, Usha R Prabakaran, was or even the publisher, listed as Pebble Green Publications. The managers in the bookshops couldn’t seem to remember how the book appeared there.

But the book was seriously impressive. It had, as promised on the cover, 1,000 recipes for pickles ranging from #1, Hot Spiced Mango, to #1000, Watermelon Rind in Spiced Vinegar. Only vegetarian pickles were collected, but they included pickles made with ingredients such as plantain flowers, drumstick pith, sprouted mung dal, asparagus and even spicy soy nuggets pickled with capsicum.

The book had traditional recipes like Andhra’s gongura leaf, Assam’s elephant apples and Kashmir’s green walnuts. There were detailed directions on pickling techniques, preservative liquids and storage instructions.

There were tips on how to buy, store and cut vegetables for pickling. There was a section on pickles traditionally made by thriftily using waste ingredients such as plantain skins, cauliflower stems and bottle gourd peels. And there was a glossary with names of vegetables in nine Indian languages and botanical names, which itself was worth the `460 price of the book.

Word of 'Usha’s Pickle Digest' spread over internet food groups. It wasn’t available online so those going to Chennai were importuned to buy copies for those in other cities. People wanted to know who had managed to put together the book with such impressive discipline and dedication. Finally, through online efforts and personal contacts, Prabakaran was located and she agreed to meet a few journalists. I was one, and when I reached her house, the mystery of the publisher was solved — the name of her house was Pebble Green! And when I met Prabakaran inside, the mystery of her inaccessibility became clear.

pickle
It had, as promised on the cover, 1,000 recipes for pickles ranging from #1, Hot Spiced Mango, to #1000, Watermelon Rind in Spiced Vinegar.


Prabakaran explained that she had trained as a lawyer. But after her son was born, she realised she had no real interest in law. What interested her was cooking and, in particular, making pickles. So she started collecting and trying recipes. This evolved into a project to document pickle-making, which she decided to do in the most thorough way. She got help converting her recipes into a simple, clear format using newly available desktop publishing, and published the book herself. This explained the design, which was clear and practical, but unlike most commercially published cookbooks.

But just when the book came out, Prabakaran fell seriously ill. She had developed a rare condition of a fungal infection in her brain and this had required very serious surgery. The recovery was long and slow and she had to be careful to stay in very clean, calm conditions. This explained her reclusive life, and why no booksellers knew her.

She also had to adjust to another change. Her son was showing real promise as a tennis player and she and her husband decided he should move to a tennis academy in Bengaluru. It hadn’t been easy, she said, but they knew it was in his best interests. And painful as it must have been, the decision paid off because Prabakaran’s son is Prajnesh Gunneswaran, now India’s top-seeded male singles player.

He has not had an easy time reaching there. After a promising Junior career, he went on to learn tennis in Spain, Germany and the USA. But on the way, he picked up injuries that took him off play for as much as five years.

Many questioned if he could make it back. But in 2018, the year he turned 29, he won a bronze at the Asian Games and two titles in the ATP Challengers Tour. This year in April he reached a career high of 75 in the ATP rankings (he is at 90 now) and looks set to be a lead player in India’s Davis Cup challenge, which will take place in Pakistan, making them the first Indian tennis team to play in Pakistan since 1964.

Speaking to Prabakaran now, she tells me how proud she is that he learned to manage by himself. In recent years her husband, SG Prabakaran, a Chennai-based property developer and stakeholder in Lakshmi Vilas Bank, has also been battling serious health issues. But, she says, her son has learned not to let worries about his parents’ health, or his own, affect his game: “He has an incredible ability to compartmentalise. When he is on court, his focus is only on his game.”

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Prabakaran has kept focused too, she says, with a new project about rasams. She has been collecting and trying recipes with the same dedication she showed towards pickles, and now it is just a question of 1,000 of them for her rasam book (she says she had almost 3,000 pickle recipes from which she had to narrow down!). She also wants to make Usha’s Pickle Digest, which is long out of print now, freely available online as an e-book.

This is excellent news since over the years, the book has achieved a cult status, with food lovers desperately trying to procure copies, or make photocopied versions. An ebook, and a companion volume on rasams from Prabakaran will really be something to look forward to, as much as tennis lovers can look forward to what her son might soon achieve in the Davis Cup.
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