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Living for the batter days
Summer is the season for making vadaams. The Tamilian version of the papad, this family of crisps can elevate the most dreary meal.
A recent meltdown of sorts reminded me that the best antidote to all things not nice is hot rice with a dollop of home-made ghee, rasam and vadaam. I had to cook when I was unwell and since I'm a good Tam Brahm I've learnt how to make rasam from my mother. But the Garden chips crushed over the rasam and rice paled in comparison to the elai vadaam I would have had at mom's.
Vadaams are crisps and my mother's repertoire included at least 14 varieties: arushi (rice) vadaam (long, often bulbous strips that are transformed into divine creations upon frying), sabudana vadaam (discs of sabudana that turn white upon meeting hot oil and swell to twice their size), sabudana and potato vadaam (these come in spiral or strip form), and the trickiest and most intricate of them all, the godumai vadaam (made from wheat milk), which when fried resembles a ball of crisp noodles. The piece de resistance is the elai vadaam, which resembles a fluffy papad when fried and is made by steaming rice batter in a special stands. Our terrace used to be a mini-manufacturing unit of vadaams.
My childhood summers were times of going up to the terrace to check how the vadaams were doing. These summer goodies were more than just an activity my mother engaged us in to avoid sending us to summer camps (or whatever the equivalent was in those days). It just seemed that we had to earn our right to enjoy our vadaams. Sometimes mothers and aunts would collaborate depending on who had the best terrace or the best equipment and share the spoils. This meant hanging out with cousins and having a vadaam party of sorts.
These days condiments such as vadaams are bought from stores. But back in the day, the months of April and May were about making jams, squashes, pickles, chutneys and, above all, vadaams that were hidden in various nooks of the house for frying when a dreary meal needed to be dressed up.
In the vadaam hierarchy, karuvadaams, the extruded variety, are a notch higher than the simpler, non-extruded ones. The base is usually rice, wheat, potato, sabudana or a combination of these. Condiments were kept to a minimum - onions, chillies, salt, hing, jeera, til at most. The procedure usually involved soaking the grain overnight, grinding it with spices, cooking the mixture to the required consistency and then either extruding or spooning and shaping the batter into portions that were then dried under sunlight on sarees, dhotis or plastic sheets for two to three days. The robust April heat was perfect.
Duties were assigned to family members depending on where you were in the hierarchy and what skills you possessed. I was asked to slice potatoes and onions or spoon out even spheres of sabudana vadaam on to plastic sheets. Dad was in charge of stirring the batter and carrying heavy utensils onto the terrace. My sister was in charge of anchoring the sheets with stones so that they didn't fold over and cause the precious vadaams to stick to one another, or worse, fly away when dry. In a day or two, the vadaams were turned over. By then the crop seemed to have shrunk - a result of the drying process and our periodic sampling.
Guarding the crisps was a crucial part of the whole operation as they were prey to crows and dogs and kids. A black cloth was usually flagged off (usually a blouse or a petticoat was sacrificed) as it seemed to have bird-repelling powers. But there was no deterrent for people like my brother who would polish off half-dried vadaams and sometimes trade them for marbles, kites, dried mango wedges, pickle, twine and comic books. The elai vadaams usually brought in the best revenue. My mother would aim for 100 pieces and be grateful if she got 50.
Until a few years ago, my mother kept up her annual production of vadaams on her terrace unit. Then terraces became negotiable pieces of real estate, access to which could only be gained after tedious paperwork or a 'real good reason'. People like my mother had to explain why they needed continuous access for weeks and why the activity couldn't be performed elsewhere. My mother hasn't made vadaams in a few years, but some of our old vadaam tins (acquired after much coaxing from local kiranawalas who used them as biscuit tins) are still in existence, bearing silent testimony to a less bureaucratic, non-Tupperware era.
SABUDANA AND POTATO VADAAM
Sabudana - 1kg Potatoes - 1kg Green chillies and salt to taste
Soak the sabudana overnight, drain. Boil the potatoes, remove skin, mash well. Mix the mashed potatoes with the sabudana by hand, add ground green chilli paste (4-6 chillies) and salt. Extrude this mixture from a murukku(chakli) mould into strips or spirals on to a plastic sheet. Dry in the sun for a day, turn over the next day to dry the underside and dry for another two days. Pack into airtight containers and fry on a rainy day.
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