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How red is your gunpowder?
Circa 1941. My great grandfather, the late Enachamu Chuppayan, then aged 78 was a man with but a few vices. Felson cigarettes, which allegedly took care of his asthma, turpentine oil for his joints, and a ritual morning jaunt to the local Sacchoos in the sub-court premises of Palakkad district in a hand-pulled rickshaw to feast on his morning ecstasy. Hot idlis, steamed over a charcoal fire, and plunged into molagapodi doused in gallons of gingelly oil. Six of them would keep him going for most of the day.
For variation, there was always Nondichaamis or Veerakuttys at Big Bazar, or Pathens, another favourite of the Chuppayan family.
Circa 1958. My father arrives in Bombay for employment and spends many a morning basking in nostalgia on Kumta Street and Calicut Street, the then hadquarters of the South Indian Brahamin eateries. Not to forget the erstwhile Ramdeo on Apollo Street. Dosai and adai served with molagapodi make his mornings in Bombay more negotiable.
It has been over four decades since then, but not much has changed. The molagapodi still finds pride of place at the Chuppayan tables as the chief companion for idlis and dosas, with the chutney and sambar relegated to positions two and three. Did I hear someone mew, "But what is molagapodi?" Allow me.
Molagapodi a. k. a gunpowder. Undisputed king of dry chutneys from the land of the Dravidians. Led to salvation by gingelly (til) oil, sometimes ghee. Recipes to this magical concoction are often guarded more fiercely than family heirlooms, which is why you will find that no two molagapodis taste the same. Unfortunately, South Indian homes are still the best bet for this tantalising accompaniment, since it is never served in restaurants except a few (see box) unless asked for.
Well, as the name suggests, it's basically a tango between molaga (chillies) and podi (a mixture of powdered dals). Clearly, the genealogy of the molaga needs to be defined here, for it is the one that gives the kick. While ancient Palakkad Brahmins swear by Kandhari chillies (pin type), the order of the day seems to be Madras chillies. What goes into the powder is something that mothers tell no one, so I have no idea how this legacy has come this far. On much prodding and enticing, my mother finally gave away her secret recipe, which my father instantly mocked (the Chuppayan in him couldn't help it) and counter-presented his.
Chana dal 1/2 cup Udad dal 1 cup Red chillies (to taste) Hing powder Jaggery (to taste) Tamarind (to taste) Salt
Roast dals to golden brown in a little oil, add red chillies and hing powder, roast for 2-3 minutes. Powder to coarse granules with salt to taste and a pinch of jaggery or tamarind (optional)
Red hot Madras chillies - 10 nos Udad dal - 3 spoons Channa dal - 4 spoons Daliya - 8 spoons Kopra - 200 gms Pepper - 1/4 spoon Hing - 1/2 spoon
Above ingredients to be roasted and then ground to a granular form, never fine. If possible, use a hand pounder.
So much for TamBrams and their idiosyncracies. Apparently, the Karnataka avatar includes curry leaves and other pollutants, to which, I am sure my family will have something to say, like, "They don't know their curry leaves from their chillies" or somesuch.
How to eat
The traditional method is to form a tiny hillock after heaping two to three spoonfuls of it on your plate, alongside the idlis or dosas, and then burrow a hole into which is poured copious amounts of til oil, until it overflows. You can then mix this into a paste, allowing the excess oil to find its own path, and cohabit the idlis if it so wishes.
The journey stress buster
Masala idlis or idlis smeared with molagapodi-til oil concoction can render any journey less weary, whether it is a busride to Poona or the dreary Bombay Mail to Calcutta, and often last for as long as two days. You can be ensconced in your upper berth, feasting on these delightful travel buddies, and there is no mess at all. No one will know a thing, which means you don't have to share it either. The curd-rice with molagapodi is another journey antidote my mother swears by, although I wouldn't mess with my curd-rice (or my molagapodi for that matter).
From being family heirlooms, the molagapodis have now got into the brandwagon, with packaged forms being marketed (rather successfully) by Sakthi Masalas, MTR foods, Raos, 777, all making rather gallant attempts at demystifying this dying art. But for most Palakkad Brahmins, it will still remain a thing to inherit from their ancestors.
I realised the son has his Chuppayan intact, for since age nine months, when I deigned to hand him bites of the bland idli on his high-chair, he pointed furiously at my plate which had the molagapodi sitting smug in a corner. I knew then that he was ready. Till today, he requires three refills of the concoction on any given breakfast - he believes in a generous dousing of the molagapodi over his idlis and dosas as opposed to my conservative one.
My father is happy. My great-grandfather would have been ecstatic.
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