Monday, July 20, 2009

Pappadam Thalichathu…..Pappadam gets a makeover!

For a young girl who grew up sitting on the steps of her mother’s kitchen , gazing at the coconut palm fronds swaying in the morning breeze while her mother refilled the plate with laced Paalappam hot off the Appachatti with a side of warm and creamy potato stew, it was literally an eye-popping and jaw- dropping moment when she got a plate of some mushy pile of rice with some tiny specks of yellow here and there, drenched in a pool of coconut chutney for breakfast on her first day at the hostel. She walked back to her room, holding the plate carefully without letting the chutney flow out of her rimless plate . She stared at the food in front for a while and started taking small spoonfuls and after three or four , she realised it could be a distant relative of the tasty Pongal she had relished at one of her classmate’s marriage at Nagercoil. There at that moment, she started missing HOME badly but didn’t realise that it was only the first scoop of reality shock in the many more to come.

She went back to the hostel mess to fill her lunch box and instead of plain white rice, what she found there was another soggy mix of rice mixed with curd and a bowl of lemon pickle. Though the idea of mixed rice was hard to stomach, she filled up the box and by the lunch time at the office, the curd rice had become ice cold and she stopped eating after a couple spoonfuls. By evening her stomach started grumbling and all she could do was run to the bakery at the ground floor of that office building and buy some chicken puffs which strangely had an orange colored filling , quite different from her favourite spicy chicken puffs she was used to, from the famous Best Bakers near her home. But she sank her teeth into it as though she had not seen food for last one week.

Back at the hostel, it was time for dinner , and she grabbed her plate and glass to hit the mess ( pun intended) one more time and there her eyes widened and face beamed at the sight of plain steamed rice……. but all that joy was short lived when she noticed the curry of greens, overcooked and soggy in a pale green water and a yellow side dish of some unknown vegetable mixed with lentils, again in a liquid base. For someone who grew up eating her greens as a dry stirfry with a touch of grated coconut and mustard seeds, the sight of those dishes were quite unappetizing. She served some rice and curd on to her plate and picked a couple of deep fried flat round discs, that looked somewhat similar to the Pappadam from her mother’s kitchen and ate her dinner with a heavy heart and welled up eyes, thinking of her home, parents and the innumerable times she rejected the tastiest food her mother cooked for her with all that love and care!!!!!

That was one of my first experience in the web of real life learnings outside the coziness and comforts of my home ……the experiences that taught me the meaning of thoughtfully crafted home cooked meals and the value of staying with parents……slowly I learned to adjust to my new surroundings, wash my own clothes,tidy up the room and bath and eat whatever food that was available, as long as it was edible and free of worms !! Literally, 2 ½ years of ‘taming’ ( yes, I meant it) that gave me the foundation to start a family and run a house without the luxury of a maid !!

I survived those days with frequent visits to my cousin’s and local guardian’s homes for some home cooked meals and they were kind enough to take me as a refugee. At one point of time, I was so used to that bland hostel food that my stomach resisted badly whenever my aunt fed me all those familiar dishes cooked in coconut oil!! And those days whenever I had a sudden urge to eat some simple meal, I went to the nearby restaurant and ordered just plain steamed rice, curd and a spicy fish fry….the only combo that gave me a break from the soggy mess at the hostel-mess.

Knowing my plight, my mother utilised every opportunity to courier some of her tasty creations whenever any of my cousins travelled via the city I lived and they passed on that classic shopping bag in jute-‘Big Shopper’, stuffed with boxes of fish fry, chicken fry, the tastiest yet simple Moru kachiyathu ( a yogurt based sauce) in an old Horlicks bottle and a huge plastic bottle filled with my life saver, Pappadam Thalichathu. On such days me and my other two roommates from Kerala, my best roomies ever, waited to get back from work and literally ‘attack’ the big shopper like barbarians (or a class below) ! The tantalising aroma of non veg food cooked in coconut oil with spices and curry leaves was so unbearable for our hostel warden that she scooted from Room No: 7B on her routine checks….poor lady, little did she know what she was missing ;-P

We always saved that big bottle of Pappadam Thalichathu for later as it could be easily stored for 3-4 weeks. We were quite stingy with the portions each one got to make sure that we get a whiff of curry leaves fried in coconut oil with a bite of mustard seeds and fried onions along with those crispy diamond shaped Pappadam everynight for dinner and for me , it was the taste and smell of home… the taste and smell I longed for!!!

Here’s the recipe for Pappadam Thalichathu that holds a special place in my taste memories.

12 medium size Pappadam/Indian wafers (buy the ones from Kerala)
1 -2 tbsp coconut oil plus more for deep frying Pappadam
1 tsp mustard seeds
2-3 small red pearl onions, thinly sliced
1 small sprig of curry leaves
½ tsp red chilly powder

  • Cut Pappadam into diamond shapes. You may tightly roll 2-3 Pappadam at a time, into a tube, and then cut them into small pieces using a scissor or knife. Deep fry Pappadam- diamonds until it is crisp and puffed up well; drain them and leave them on a plate.
  • Heat 1-2 tablespoon coconut oil in a large wok/cheenachatti/kadai and splutter mustard seeds and add thinly sliced onions and curry leaves. Sauté onions until they turn brown. Switch off the flame and ( to avoid burning the chilly powder) remove wok from the burner; add chilly powder and mix well with seasoned onions and curry leaves and transfer all the fried pappadam to the wok and coat thoroughly with the spices and herbs.
  • This can be stored in an airtight container for weeks (provided you have fried/browned small onions well). • Serve with rice.

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