Sujatha Varma justifies an occasional binging on ghee and jaggery as good for the emotional side of the heart.
It’s a sultry morning with a clear sunny sky. “Koneru Centre, it is supposed to be a bustling place in Machilipatnam,” I tell the driver, who turns back to give me a terse “I know it” look.
“Is it your first visit to Bandar (Machilipatnam’s other name) Madam? I go there at least thrice a week. Koneru Centre is where I have my chai,” he says.
The purpose of my visit is to find out about the Bandar laddu, also known as “tokkudu laddu”. This Andhra dessert is made with gram flour (besan) and is very similar to besan laddu; only the process time-consuming and tastes way more delicious.
I try hard to shed a fresh, troubling memory of my recent visit to an endocrinologist who diagnosed me as diabetic and asked the nutritionist to lay down a diet chart for me. In a feeble attempt to justify my laddu trip, I remind myself that the nutritionist had allowed some sweets in moderation. But the ghee-slathered Bandar laddu?
The car comes to a screeching halt. I peep out of the window and there I am, in front of the famous Tatha Rao Sweets that churns out kilos of delectable Bandar laddus every day.
The front of the shop has a modern glass façade. The interior is interesting. The left wall is transformed into a collage of dozens of photographs of Sirvisetty Satyanarayana aka Tatha Rao with the “who’s who” of Indian politics and erstwhile big names of Telugu film industry. Indira Gandhi, Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, Marri Chenna Reddy and Jagjivan Ram figure in his customer list. Thespian-turned-founder of Telugu Desam Party, the late N.T. Rama Rao, has had a permanent account with him.
“I was informed about your visit. So you want to do a write-up? But the world already knows about the signature sweet of Machilipatnam — the Bandar laddu. Hope you have tasted our laddu…” says Tatha Rao with a warm smile. Before I say anything, he calls out to a worker asking him to bring a plateful of sweets from the counter.
“My father-in-law started this shop in 1951. It was like that then,” he says pointing to a black-and-white photograph of a modest structure.” Today Tatha Rao owns a string of sweet outlets.
“The recipe was brought to this city by a group of north Indian migrant families. They were called Singhs or even Bondilis. Some of the local families learnt the technique from them. The North Indians slowly moved away from the profession while the locals embraced it,” he says.
“Laddus from my shop travel across the globe. They go wherever Telugus live. Making of a Bandar laddu is a laborious task. Not everyone gets it right. It takes at least six to seven hours to get the original flavour,” he says, sharing his concern about imitators. “But ultimately it is the quality that wins hands-down,” he says with a smile.
The secret of his success, says Tatha Rao, is that he has not made any changes in the contents of his kitchen cupboards over the years. He calls out to a worker to escort me inside, with an instruction that I should be allowed free movement and explained every single detail of the preparation. The exit door of the sweet shop opens into a strikingly different world. The hard rocky surface of the floor is bumpy with bare, rough and patchy walls. This is open space earmarked for cutting, chopping, washing and drying the ingredients.
An elderly man, Nani, is rinsing a container full of cashew nuts. He then scurries into the kitchen, a dark room where a fire is stoked, ladles wielded and dripping ghee from trays full of goduma halwa (wheat flour halwa) is drained out in tiny bowls for re-use.
Bhavani, a young girl assisting the cooks, rushes in trying to balance half-a-dozen trays of halwa. I quickly move aside and admire the precision with which she uses her nimble fingers to clear the trays of extra ghee.
“Do you want to see that or this?” Nani’s voice prompts me to hastily turn around. He is already mixing water in gram flour (besan). After kneading it into dough and placing a kadai full of ghee on the fire, he calls to Satyanarayana, a 27-year-old, busy tossing, hurling and flinging ingredients for another variety of sweet, to take over.
“In these parts you may have a wedding even without bride or bridegroom but not without laddu,” says the young chap, checking if the batter is smooth. He holds a giant-size perforated ladle a few inches above the hot ghee. He then fills the ladle with batter and presses it through the sieve, into the ghee. The batter slinks into the vat of gurgling, hissing oil. It smells delicious. He repeats the process till the batter is used up to get thick cords (chakli) which are drained of excess oil and allowed to dry.
These chaklis are then crushed into fine powder using a mechanised pestle. The powder is then methodically mixed with thick jaggery syrup. This mix is set aside for about five to six hours. To make it smooth, it is pounded every hour. Chopped dry fruits, raisins and cardamom are added to enhance the flavour of the sweet before the mix is used to make small balls of desirable size.
I come out of Tatha Rao Sweets and walk a short distance to sample the dessert in a few other shops in the vicinity. Bringing the laddu close to my nose, I sniff in vain for that pure ghee aroma I found at Tatha Rao’s.
“I make sweets to satisfy the purist…” The octogenarian’s words ring in my head as I walk back to the car.
Where is Machilipatnam?
Known as Masulipatnam under British rule and as Bandar in folklore, this city is a special grade municipality and the district administrative head-quarters of the Krishna district in Andhra Pradesh. It is located 62 km east of Vijayawada and is well connected to important cities of the country through rail and bus.
HOW IT’S MADE
To make one kg of Bandar laddu (about 26 to 28 laddus), you will need:
Gram flour (besan) 600 grams
Jaggery (for syrup) 400 grams
Ghee 200 to 250 grams
Dry fruits: Raisins and cashew nuts
A pinch of cardamom powder
Add water to the gram flour and mix it into a dough without lumps. Pour ghee in a pan (kadai), place it on the fire and allow it to heat. Take a perforated ladle, hold it four inches above the hot ghee, place the dough on the ladle and press it hard with hand to make the dough slink through the ladle and fall into the ghee.
Once the strands turn golden yellow, drain them out of the ghee and allow them to cool.
In a separate kadai, mix crushed jaggery with water and prepare a thick syrup.
Pound the besan strands (chaklis) into fine powder and mix it thoroughly with the jaggery syrup. Set aside the mix for four to five hours and keep pounding the mix for at least five minutes every hour. This is to ensure the soft texture of the laddu.
Chop cashew nuts and toss them in ghee until they are golden brown. Repeat the process (no need to chop) with the raisins until they become fluffy and add them to the mix.
Smear your palms with little ghee, take a little of the mixture in your hand, clump your hands with the mixture to tighten it. Using your inner palm, slowly rotate it to make small balls.
Your delicious Bandar laddu is ready.
A fortnightly feature on food and the places that made them famous.