Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Shyam Lata Sihare - pickles, papads and more the ole fashioned way


The Original article in Hindu Mistress of spices CHITRA BALASUBRAMANIAM

(The unedited version is .....)

A catchy line, “Old Fashioned Gourmet” on a host of pickles, squashes etc piqued my interest. Further probing revealed a passionate lady; Mrs. Shyam Lata Sihare fondly called Amma, who was behind the products. And therein revealed a passion for food and all the ingredients that went into it. The welcome ring in the voice when I called up to speak to Shyam Lata, saying, “aap aayiye, hamare products chakiye aur phir achha lage to likiye - you come taste our products and if you like it, go ahead and write about it.”   Amidst the aromatic waft of spices permeating from the kitchen, an extremely courteous staff takes me to meet Amma. I am greeted with a warm beaming smile with affection, despite a foot in cast.  

And before long, I am drawn into an Aladdin cave of sorts with a treasure of information on spices, dals, food, jams, squashes and of course pickles. It soon becomes apparent, that the entire operation is more of a passion and hobby than a livelihood venture. Shyam Lata is a Marwari hailing from the J K Industrial Group family. She elaborates, “The reason we started was to make available quality products in which there is no adulteration. In a bid to make a product affordable, there is a compromise in the quality of the ingredients. If one does not eat right then how can one survive?” It is in this quest for making products which are 100% pure that her venture started way back in 1993 and her products are in demand by those who appreciate quality including the who’s who of Delhi.

So what is so special about her pickles and other products? Pickles are available all the time everywhere. Here lies the difference; the pickles made by her sold under Aravali Foods are made the old fashioned way using the age old recipes with nay a change. Everything is still hand made with little or no use of machines. Spices are bought whole, washed, sun dried naturally, cleaned by hand and then yes, hand pounded in a huge mortar and pestle. Salt is bought in rock form, washed, dried and then again hand pounded to the fine powder. So is the chilly, spice powders and garam masala. The mangoes, lemons, chillies are also washed, dried and cut by hand quantities not withstanding. The mixing of the pickles is done in huge vessels by hand using ladles just like it was once done at home. There is no compromise no adulteration. As she says, “I will not compromise on quality just to sell.”

With this perfectionist bend, she started making a few kilos of pickles, which given the good quality of ingredients, sold well. And then began the journey. Speaking of the recipes, she says, “it is recipes made by my mother and grandmother. First we made pickles, then squashes, then people started demanding that we also sell them the hand pounded spices which we used in our pickles, then came pappads, vadiyas, magode….. ” And more products are being added as the journey progresses.  

Given this obsession for quality, she realized what mattered was to establish the right sourcing for the ingredients straight from the farmers where there will be little scope for adulteration. As she adds, “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 hand 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-tasting them and finally discovering the niche source. So it was finally Unjha, Mehsana District of Gujarat from where the best of ajwain straight from the fields is procured. So fresh that she adds, “one can just use a pinch and feel the aroma.” The 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. 9000 - Rs. 10000 a kilo, the aroma is unimaginable. The little packet that I have bought still manages to induce its smell in the entire home. I query, “do I use a pinch”? All her staff cries in unison - no a pinch is a lot. Shyam Lata adds, “Take a toothpick and prick it and put it in the dish.” Whole turmeric is bought from Erode, cardamom fresh from the gardens of Kerala, other spices from Bangalore. From Unjha come the dhania or coriander seeds. She explains, “we buy the smallest size of coriander which are tender and bursting with taste. The bigger sized ones are filled with husk and do not have taste and aroma. While jeera it is the medium sized ones.” The garam masala has a whopping 16 - 20 ingredients, including nag kesar, jaiphal, javitri, karan phool, pipli small and big, tej patta, black pepper and of course no coriander seeds. Rock salt called Sendha Namak comes from Sindh in Pakistan as also the Kala Namak. The huge rock in white and black salt is shown to me. Kasoori methi comes from Nagaur and she vouches is not bitter. The mangoes for the pickles are the Rajapuri mangoes from Maharashtra and Resham Patti chillies from Gujarat. This is just the tip of what is used.

Speaking of red chilies, her assistant Tannu adds, “we clean out the seeds and the top and nearly 40% of the weight is lost.”  The discussion of spices is so fascinating that I seem to have lost track of the products made. Matter of factly, 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 use acetic acid or common salt. It is made using hand pounded Sendha namak. There are oil free pickles as well.”

Unable to accompany me to the dining table where her staff has spread out some of the products, she goads me to ask them any question. The staff about 4 of them vies with one another to give me information with a tremendous sense of pride in what they are doing. So there is mango garlic, chilli garlic in a fine mash, which goes delightfully with Paranthas I am told. Garlicy it is nice and flavoured, Mirchoni uses mango with hing and is hot, there is chuara (dry dates) with lemon and other ingredients, ginger with chuara, mango lachha, meeti mirch, red chilli in orange juice, green chilli, red chilli with raisins, lal mirch banarsi, hari mirch jaipuri….  Then during winters it is gobhi shalgam and vegetable based ones. They make 40 or more types of pickles, (no, I think they have never counted them). Then there are squashes and concentrates, the kairi pudina (aam panna) is wonderfully refreshing. Each pickle has its own ingredient carefully sourced, sorted and then made. What is foremost is quality, as she adds, “even if a few pieces drop on the floor, we do not put it back. We keep it aside for someone to take it but we do not sell it to our clients.” Preserves do not use pectin. I am astounded by her attention to detail and running the enterprise single handedly. In true style she says, “any new pickle I keep it on my bed side table and carefully study its ageing.” For me, what stood out was the distinct home made taste, not once, did I feel it was a product made for the market. Lovingly made, delicious to taste and natural spicy aroma, it is another world of slow food and good homely ole fashioned charm.