SOMA BASU goes on the trail of the crispy snack and finds that it rules the common man’s stomach.
I am early in Aruppukottai watching the municipal town wake up. The lanes and by-lanes are silent with few women drawing the traditional kolams in front of their houses. The road that cuts across the main market is still in slumber. Few workers have arrived to clear the previous day’s garbage. Some are sprinkling water on the dust-laden streets. An odd-vehicle passes by. Stray dogs and cattle amble along. Only the small eateries are out with their “tiffin ready” boards. The bus stand has its usual element of buzz.
I sense activity at the “Muniyandi sweet shop” near the main bazaar road. The shutter is still down, but a group of men wearing banians and lungis scurry in and out of a narrow alley by the side of the shop that measures 10 by 12 ft.
Strangers are forbidden from entering. I try to convince the owner M. Ganesan about a write-up on Aruppukottai seeval. He gets even more suspicious. “It is the rural man’s food item. Why should an English paper read by the rich and educated in the cities be interested in it?” he asks. That his native town will come on the food map makes him curious, “Will people abroad also read it?” He says he has buyers for the seeval he makes, in the US, the UK and the Middle East.
I have a reason to enter his kitchen now! But he stops me. “Seeval preparation is over by 6.30 a.m. The shop will open at 9 a.m. You can come and taste it,” he says.
The seeval is a small rectangle-shaped crunchy snack, light in weight. It is a cross between the namak para of the North and the ribbon murukku of the South. Made with few ingredients and even lesser preparation time, the seeval is known as the poor man’s food in this arid belt of south Tamil Nadu. It makes a good side dish with pazhaya saadam or the panta-bhaat (stale rice soaked in water) during meal time and also doubles up as a snack any time of the day.
The seeval is made only in Aruppukottai and is mostly sold out of here. Palavanatham, 10 km from Aruppukottai town in Virudhunagar district, is the only other place where a few families are still making seeval for three generations. Locals say seeval is like a heritage item, in existence over 100 years.
The Muniyandi shop, however, is not the oldest. But the family captures the market share now. Ganesan’s USP is “the taste that differs from what the rest sell.” I have to check it out. It is a little hard to bite than the one I had at the previous roadside shop where it was very crispy, fluffy and light in colour. Here, it is a darker shade of brown and also tastes different from the usual besan flavour. It is more filling too.
That is because, claims Ganesan, he is the only manufacturer in Aruppukottai who uses Australian white peas as the main ingredient instead of the usual kadala maavu (Bengal gram flour). “That is what gives the product consistency and taste,” he says.
Ganesan’s father set up the first shop in 1963. Today, with his three brothers, the family owns six more in the eight-km radius town, which has at least 40 similar sweet stalls. In fact, every third stall in Aruppukottai town sells a variety of namkeens and sweets. But it is the seeval which gets them the returns.
Preparation of seeval is the first choice in most of the shops as it moves off the shelf fast. It takes about 30 minutes to make four kilos of seeval. Depending on the preparation, storage capacity and sales, each shop owner prepares seeval at least twice a day. All the sweet shops scattered in Aruppukottai together sell 400 to 450 kg of seeval daily, says V.S.P. Chandramohan who has been running his father’s shop “V.S.P. Sweet Stall” for the last 25 years. His father V.S.P. Ponnuchamy set up the first shop 60 years ago. Chandramohan added one more.
Every sweet stall owner in the small town has a history of at least three decades. And the majority of them have more than one branch, each selling 10 to 12 kg of seeval daily between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m.
So what makes Aruppukottai seeval so sought after? “It is something which has been happening for years. People buy it and love to eat it and so keep buying more,” says Chandramohan. A simple explanation indeed, for a very simple snack item. He offers me a handful. I lap it up in no time. In his shop, the seeval is not flat, but twisted in shape and is soft yet crispy.
As we walk from one sweet stall to another in the busy bazaar, we notice seeval disappearing fast. Mahalakshmi, a housewife, buying 100 gms of seeval for Rs.10 at Manikantan sweet stall, is shy of getting photographed. But, she says she stops at the 62-year-old shop every day. “After my daily purchase of vegetables and grocery items, I pick it up. My children love it.”
Latha buys 250 gms of seeval every day: “It is so tasty and gets consumed so fast that I have to refill my stock on a daily basis.”
The sweet shops sell seeval for Rs.80 to Rs.100 a kg. Ten years ago, it sold at Rs.25 per kg. Last year, the price was Rs.60 per kg. Points out Selvaraj, the price of oil and dal has gone up. “But seeval maintains its competitive rate because it is an all-time favourite of the local poor, nearby villagers, and travellers in transit. It is cheap and anybody can afford it. I also make small packets for even one rupee,” he adds.
In between bites of seeval, I realise it is indeed an easy snack to munch on. Like the self-employed handloom workers whom I see working by the roadside and popping seeval into their mouths. Aruppukottai also has a workforce of 25,000 spinning mills employees. Many of them bring old rice soaked overnight in water for lunch and seeval works as a perfect side dish, like pickle with curd rice. Though seeval is deep fried, it appears to be the first choice of all.
Mariappan takes pride in the fact that the seeval he prepares crosses borders. “There are at least 500 families from this area whose members live abroad. When they come down, they take back three to five kg of seeval,” he says.
I taste his brand of seeval. My taste-buds say they are similar to what I tasted in two other shops. I am a wee bit confused.
The time is 1 p.m. and I head for Palavanatham village where S. Mukuntharajan is getting ready to prepare his second round of seeval. His morning stock of five kg is already over.
A straight name — the “Seeval sweet shop” is seven decades old. He inherited it from his grandfather and now his son runs it. “Though there are three more shops in the village, you will find a majority of homes here and in the three neighbouring villages stocking our seeval,” he says aloud. A boy of six appears at his shop and asks for a packet of potato chips. Mukuntharajan admonishes him and asks him to lay off. He then turns to me, “These companies sell their products in bright packaging and that attracts kids now.”
I enter the space where the batter is mixed for seeval and the final product is made. I watch his assistant of years, Veerapandi mixing kadala mavu (besan flour) and arisi mavu (rice flour) in oil and water with a handful of chilly powder and salt in no time. Ramasamy takes over from him. Using the seeval cutting board, with one hand he grates small pieces and with the other keeps stirring the oil as the pieces puff-up and turn golden brown in colour. He swishes and tosses them up a few times on the big perforated ladle before straining them out of the oil.
Here, I taste seeval fresh out of the pan — piping hot and ultra crunchy — it crackles in my mouth and leaves a lingering salty taste. By now, I too have started enjoying seeval and am quite sure that it faces no threat. Whether sold from inside the glass case or in open heaps by the roadside, attracting flies and dust, there is rarely any balance left with any of the sellers by the time they wind up their business for the day.
What came as a surprise after randomly checking with several women is that seeval is not prepared at home. May be it is too trivial a job, especially when it is so easily available in the market at a low cost.
I never thought I could survive snacking on seeval for the entire day. I tried it in about a dozen shops and realise much of the taste also depends on what each maker throws into it for that slight variation. While rice powder, asafoetida and salt are the other common ingredients, some use cumin, chilly powder or omapodi (powdered ajwain/carom seeds) for the marginal difference.
In all fairness, it is three cheers for the common man’s snack item.
HOW IT’S MADE
Ingredients needed for preparing three padis (One padi is equal to 1.25 kg) of seeval:
1.5 kg kadala mavu (besan)
1.5 kg arisi mavu (raw rice powder)
Oil (1 litre)
Water (1.5 litre)
Asafoetida (25 gms)
Chilly powder (25 gms)
Salt (two handfuls)
Oil is first poured into a big kadai (frying pan). Then water mixed with asafoetida, salt and chilly powder is poured over it. Next besan and rice flour are added.
Using both hands, the batter is mixed well. It is kneaded gently to achieve a thick consistency. It looks like chappati dough but is much softer than that.
Oil for frying is heated in a big kadai. Over it is placed a big seeval kattai (the grating board, which has an iron cutting board framed in solid wood). The dough is slid up and down on the board and small flakes fall into the oil below. The flat and small ribbon-like pieces are deep fried till they turn golden brown in colour.
Seeval is best eaten when fresh. It has a shelf life of 10 days when stored in an air-tight container.