CHENNAI, India — Usha Prabakaran was at home, talking on the phone with a college friend, when she stopped making sense. Her speech scrambled. Her vision blurred. She dropped the receiver and fell to the floor.
It was 1998, and Prabakaran, a former lawyer living in Chennai, a major city on India’s southeastern coast, had just slogged through a decade of research and recipe testing for her comprehensive, single-subject cookbook, “Usha’s Pickle Digest.” A party was scheduled for the following week.
At the hospital, Prabarakan learned that a rare fungus had lodged itself in the front of her brain. She needed surgery to remove the tumor and long periods of rest to recover. The book, and the party, were quickly forgotten.
But over the next two decades, “Usha’s Pickle Digest,” self-published by an unknown author, with a first print run of just 1,000, became a cult classic in India and its diaspora — praised for its precision and scope, celebrated on blogs and podcasts and hunted down in shops, where it sold out.
Hard copies were scarce. For years, the only way to get one was to email Prabakaran herself, who might promise to print another run soon, when she was feeling better.
Some cooks couldn’t wait — they photocopied pages and passed them around, which was fine by Prabakaran. She didn’t feel a sense of ownership over her recipes. The author became known for answering friendly inquiries with a free PDF, which is how her pickle book hopped around the world as an email attachment.
Prabakaran, now 64, became known as India’s “pickle queen,” but she wasn’t interested in monetizing that title. “I know nothing about publishing, and I was never interested in selling books,” she said at her home in Chennai. “My job is to keep the past alive.”
India’s pickle culture goes back thousands of years to when cucumbers and other vegetables were simply preserved in salt. Modern Indian pickles are more complex and probably more delicious, too — hot and tangy, deeply perfumed with aromatics and ground spices.
Chitra Agrawal, a New York cookbook author and founder of pickle company Brooklyn Delhi, remembers the ceramic jugs at her grandmother’s home in Bengaluru in southern India, which held lemons in a slushy saltwater brine. This Karnataka-style pickle was seasoned with fresh green chiles and mango ginger, a fruity-tasting rhizome related to turmeric.
But the pickles Agrawal enjoyed with her family up north were completely different. For Punjabi-style burvan lal mirch, long red chiles were individually stuffed with fennel seeds, onion seeds and fenugreek seeds, then stored in oil, not brine.
Mango and lime pickles are commonly sold in the United States, but nothing escapes pickling in India: plums and hog plums, cherries and chokecherries, sprouted fenugreek seeds, bamboo shoots, fat gooseberries, hibiscus flowers and green walnuts. Cooks work with all kinds of fruits, vegetables, flowers, roots and seeds, using every edible part of every possible food.
These pickles trot out at breakfast, lunch and dinner, expanding the pleasures of every meal, from a plain bowl of rice and yogurt to a grilled cheese sandwich.
Many foods are preserved through anaerobic fermentation: The fresh food is first sun-dried to get rid of excess moisture, then salted. In the warmth of the sun, bacteria digest the sucrose, producing acids that both preserve the food and prevent the growth of other, less friendly bacteria.
Other pickles are brined in salt water, vinegar, citrus juice, tamarind juice and even yogurt. The only real defining characteristic of India’s pickle culture may be its range. Or, as Prabakaran put it, “an inordinate variety of mind-boggling permutations.”
In her book, Prabakaran limited herself to 1,000 recipes. When I finally got my own print-on-demand copy of “Usha’s Pickle Digest,” through Amazon, I was dazzled.
The book isn’t pretty. It’s text-heavy and minimally designed, resembling the most utilitarian, guidelike cookbooks of the 1970s. (“My book is meant to be used by people who cook,” Prabakaran said.) It’s also joyous and authoritative, crammed with information.
There are tips in bold for, say, removing the stamens from plantain flowers (tug at them with the blunt edge of knife) and choosing the most pickle-worthy okra (look for tails that break with a snap).
A straightforward “anti-waste” chapter includes recipes for plantain skins, jackfruit seeds, ridge-gourd peels and lime leaves, which often end up in the compost heap. While restaurant chefs make headlines now for cooking less wastefully, pickling has always been about saving the scraps, developing flavor and texture with ingenious frugality.
A chart at the back of the book translates ingredient names into nine languages, including Marathi, Bengali, Telugu and Tamil, which serves as a gentle reminder of the multiplicity of India’s pickle culture.
I tracked Prabakaran down on WhatsApp and asked if I could visit on my way to see relatives in Pune, about 750 miles northwest of Chennai.
“I look forward to you picking my brain, or what little of it is left,” she messaged back.
Prabakaran is small-framed, with a wicked sense of humor and a big, throaty laugh. Her forehead is dimpled where the tumor was removed, close to the hairline, and she has no interest in reconstructive surgery.
“People care too much about looks,” she said with a shrug. “If I have any spare time, I want to work on my books.”
Her home is at the end of a cul-de-sac of gated houses with short driveways and lush, overgrown gardens — plumeria, wild lemons, papaya, birds of paradise. The morning I visited, the pavement was splattered with light rain, and a caramel-colored calf wandered along the wall.
In the open kitchen, a cook boiled tea and steamed idlis for breakfast. “You have to try this with my citron pickle,” Prabakaran said as she spooned the luminous orange sludge onto my steel plate.
The pickle did what all great pickles do: It revived me with a ripple of salt and acidity. The grainy oil tickled with chiles and citrus. It had the effect, with every breath, of filling my lungs with more air so I could breathe more deeply. And it made everything on the plate taste bigger, stronger, hotter, better.
“Isn’t it absolutely dynamite?” she asked. The question was rhetorical. She was grinning.
Prabakaran grew up here in Mylapore, an old neighborhood in central Chennai. At home, the family spoke Tamil and English, although along with the children of other well-to-do families she also learned Hindi and French, in between karate and Carnatic music classes. In college, where she studied law, she met her husband, S.G. Prabakaran, who was also training to be a lawyer.
Her mother enjoyed reading the newspaper cover to cover, but cooking, not so much. Usha Prabakaran’s mother-in-law, though, scheduled her days around food, preserving new batches of seasonal pickles every week, sending Prabakaran home with jars of gooseberries in yogurt, sweet-and-sour orange peel and stuffed Bengal plums.
Prabakaran was hooked. She apprenticed herself, learning to turn jars in the sun so the fruit dried evenly and to combine new and old tamarinds to balance out their acidity levels. She made so many pickles that she often gave jars away to friends and family, who begged her to write down a few recipes and share them. As she tried to standardize the recipes, her project became increasingly more ambitious.
She wanted to document heirloom pickle varieties and to share every single tip she had learned along the way. What would be the point of sharing recipes if she didn’t explain how to sterilize glass jars and grind masalas at home?
She spoke with publishers, and when none were interested in her idea, Prabakaran decided to do it herself.
Although there are plenty of good-quality industrial pickles in India, pickling, as a discipline, belongs to home cooks and community pickle makers. These cooks pass their knowledge of regional pickles and house styles by working alongside other cooks.
Prabakaran worried that without documentation, the gradual loss of this knowledge was inevitable — that more and more people would make fewer and fewer pickle varieties, until eventually, the expertise was lost.
“The reason for writing the book was to ensure that the vast culinary heritage of this land stays on the map,” she said.
To broaden her sweep as she researched, she turned everyone she met into a source: friends, family, their colleagues, cooks working in middle-class home kitchens and banquet chefs catering weddings.
“My friends called me a crafty devil, because I could wriggle a pickle recipe out of anyone,” Prabakaran said. After she narrowed the recipes down from a catalog of 5,000, she tested each one in her home kitchen three times — a more thorough process than is used for many glossy cookbooks from big publishers.
After her husband died in November, she turned her focus to finishing her second book. “Usha’s Rasam Digest,” in the works for a decade, collects 1,000 recipes for rasam, an everyday soup also called saaru.
Rasam, which is vegetarian and generally quick and inexpensive to make, is deeply familiar to Indians, particularly South Indians, but different regions and families have their own methods.
Friends who had supported her pickle book were skeptical — was there really so much variation when it came to rasam? Would she even be able to find 1,000 recipes this time around? And why devote a whole book to something so ordinary?
Prabakaran was undeterred. She sat down to write a love letter to rasam as a genre, extolling its value and declaring it worthy of celebration. Then she spent 10 years researching it, gathering and testing recipes, documenting patterns and anomalies.
As she collected recipes from home cooks, she found some that were so extraordinary, they belonged in a “dazzling superstars” chapter. Others made the most of kitchen scraps like empty pea pods and showed off the imagination and intelligence of home cooks, who could stretch flavors out of just about anything.
“Even a simple black-pepper rasam holds so much promise,” she said.
Prabakaran plans to self-publish the book in March. She wants to make it easy for cooks to find, right from the start, even if that means giving it away for free.
“I just want everyone to understand the depths of Indian cookery,” she said, opening another jar of pickle, reaching for a spoon.
Recipe: Instant Pickled Carrot With Ginger
Yield: 1 1/2 cups
Total time: 10 minutes
1 large carrot, peeled and julienned
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (from 2 limes)
1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
2 scant tablespoons kosher salt
1 small green chile, such as serrano, seeded then finely chopped
1. In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients; toss thoroughly.
2. Transfer mixture to a clean jar; it is ready to eat right away. Pickles keep at room temperature for 1 week or refrigerated for 2 weeks.
Recipe: Tomato and Fennel-Seed Pickle
Yield: 3 cups
Total time: 15 minutes
3/4 cup peanut oil
3 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 tablespoon asafoetida powder
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 pound sour or unripe Roma tomatoes (about 5), roughly chopped
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons tamarind juice (see note below)
7 tablespoons red chile powder, such as hot paprika
2 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1/3 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1. In a large saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon peanut oil over medium. When the oil is hot, add the fennel seeds and asafoetida and lightly toast, shaking the pan occasionally, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove and grind into a powder using a food processor or mortar and pestle.
2. In the same pan over medium heat, add another tablespoon of peanut oil and the mustard seeds and give them a minute to crackle and pop. Add the tomatoes and stir-fry for a few minutes until tomatoes begin to soften, then scrape out into a bowl.
3. Heat another tablespoon of oil in the same pan; pour in the tamarind juice and bring to a boil. Let it simmer until it thickens, about 2 minutes, then stir in the tomato, toasted seed mixture, chile powder, turmeric, salt, vinegar and remaining peanut oil. Continue cooking for a few minutes until the mixture becomes jamlike and the oil separates.
4. Transfer mixture to a jar and cool completely. Once cool, the pickle is ready to eat and lasts for three months in the fridge. Serve a spoonful alongside rice and yogurt, flatbread, vegetables or any other foods.
You can find tamarind pulp at most South Asian or Mexican grocery stores. To make tamarind juice, often called tamarind extract, soak a tablespoon of soft tamarind pulp in warm water for about 30 minutes, then squeeze the softened pulp with your hands over a small bowl to extract as much liquid (and flavor) as possible, and strain. If necessary, pour some of the soaking water over the softened tamarind in a small strainer and press to extract additional liquid.