Mistress of spices

Chitra Balasubramaniam meets Amma, whose pickles and jams and squashes are hand-made, with ingredients sourced from places as varied as Kerala and Kabul.

Published - November 03, 2012 03:46 pm IST - New Delhi

Shyam Lata Sihare Photo: Chitra Balasubramaniam

Shyam Lata Sihare Photo: Chitra Balasubramaniam

A catchy line on a host of pickles and squashes piques my interest: “Old Fashioned Gourmet”. Further probing reveals a passionate lady — Shyam Lata Sihare, fondly called Amma , who was behind the products. When I call, Shyam Lata says, “ Aap aayiye, hamare products chakiye aur phir achha lage to likhiye.” (Come taste our products and if you like them, go ahead and write about them).”

With the aromatic waft of spices permeating from the kitchen, an extremely courteous staff takes me to meet Amma . I am greeted with a warm smile, despite a foot in a cast. And before long, I am drawn into an Aladdin's cave of sorts with a treasure of information on spices, dals, food, jams, squashes and pickles.

Shyam Lata is a Marwari hailing from the J.K. Industrial Group. She says, “The reason we started was to make available quality products in which there is no adulteration. To make a product affordable, the quality of the ingredients is compromised. If one does not eat right, then how can one survive?” It is this quest for making products which are 100 per cent pure that led her to start way back in 1993, and today her products are in demand by those who appreciate quality, including the who’s who of Delhi.

The pickles made by Shyam Lata, sold under the brand Aravali Foods, are made the old-fashioned way, using age-old recipes. Everything is mostly hand-made. Spices are bought whole, washed, sun-dried, cleaned by hand and then hand-pounded in a huge mortar and pestle. Salt is bought in rock form, washed, dried and hand-pounded. So are the chillies, spices and garam masala . The mangoes, lemons, chillies are washed, dried and cut by hand. The mixing is done in huge vessels by hand, using ladles, just like it was once done at home.

Shyam Lata started making a few kilos of pickles, which, given the quality of ingredients, sold well. Thus began the journey. Speaking of the recipes, she says that they come from her mother and grandmother. “First we made pickles, and then squashes. People started demanding that we also sell the hand-pounded spices used in our pickles. Then came pappads , vadiyas , magode ….”

Straight from the farmers

Given this accent on quality, Shyam Lata realised that what mattered was to establish the right sourcing for ingredients, straight from the farmers, thus leaving little scope for adulteration. She says, “Even the wholesale mandi does not offer fresh, good-quality spices.” There were failures. An entire consignment of ajwain had to be thrown away because it was old stock. When washed it revealed insects.

A consignment of badi elaichi went bad. So she got down to researching, finding out, getting samples from across places, testing and tasting them, and finally discovering the best source. It was Unjha, in the Mehsana district of Gujarat, where the best ajwain is procured, direct from the fields. So fresh that Shyam Lata says “one can just use a pinch and feel the aroma.” Hing or asafoetida is sourced from Kabul. The liquid tapped from trees is imported into the country and is processed here. It costs as much as Rs.9,000 to Rs.10,000 a kilogram.

Whole turmeric is bought from Erode, cardamom fresh from the gardens of Kerala, and other spices from Bangalore. From Unjha comes the dhania or coriander seeds. Shyam Lata explains, “We buy the smallest size of coriander which is tender and bursting with taste. With jeera it is the medium-sized ones.”

The garam masala has a whopping 16 to 20 ingredients, including nag kesar , jaiphal , javitri , karan phool , pipli small and big, tej patta , and black pepper. Rock salt called sendha namak comes from Sindh in Pakistan as also the kala namak . Kasoori methi comes from Nagaur and Shyam Lata asserts is not bitter. The mangoes for the pickle are the Rajapuri ones from Maharashtra and Resham patti chillies come from Gujarat.

Speaking of red chillies, her assistant Tannu says, “We clean out the seeds and the top and nearly 40 per cent of the weight is lost.” The discussion of spices is so fascinating that I seem to have lost track of the products made. She adds, “Pickles can be made with mangoes, chillies, lemons. It is the combination and the spices which make it different. None of my pickles uses acetic acid or common salt. It is made using hand-pounded sendha namak . There are oil-free pickles as well.”

I am astounded by her attention to detail and her ability to run the enterprise single-handedly. She says, “Any new pickle I keep by my bedside and carefully study its ageing.” It soon becomes apparent that the entire operation is more of a passion and hobby than a livelihood venture.

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