Soma basu gets acquainted with a small sweet that vanishes with two large bites

The tiny obscure village of Kadambur located between Kovilpatti and Thoothukudi is synonymous with “the boli”. When I hit the dusty road, it was difficult to believe that this hamlet of 5,000 people could be so famous for its local sweet item. The credit goes to an Iyer family that lived in Kadambur till the mid-1980s and popularised their home-made product. Karnataka has a similar sweet preparation, the holige, and Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat have the traditional poli, but the Kadambur Boli’s reputation remains rock solid.

Though the Iyer family wound up its business and migrated three decades ago, it left behind the legacy of its sweet stuffed maida chappatis, which were earlier referred to as the “Iyer Boli”. The Indian Railways shares the credit for popularising it. “The Boli crossed boundaries through train journeys,” said Kadambur Station Master Udaya Shankar.

Two passenger and two express trains pass through Kadambur between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. and that is when the boli business is propelled to action. Between 5.30 p.m. and 8.30 p.m., five trains pass through the same station, keeping the boli business alive.

Just as I crossed the railway track, a small shop opposite the bus stand held my attention. Plaster peeling off the walls and a mishmash of fading paint on an old board read “Arun Electronics”. Below it stood a frail man selling bolis across the counter. Three kids waited in anticipation as he packed two bolis each in three separate plantain leaf wraps. For a quarter century now, 53-year-old K. Arumugasamy has been selling boli from this spot.

Opposite his shop was a makeshift stall where 67-year-old G. Thangandhi was doing brisk business. A van full of travellers stopped in front of his stall and he quickly made packets of three bolis each, wrapped in banana leaf. A bus slowed down next and Arumugasamy came running with his big stainless steel utensil filled with bolis, which disappeared fast at Rs.4 a piece.

Both put me in a dilemma, claiming their respective bolis to be the best. Thangandhi swiftly pressed one in my hand. “It is fresh, have it,” he said. It tasted good and familiar, the sweet stuffing of bengal gram and jaggery inside oil-roasted maida chappati. “I don’t go chasing buses or trains. I have been here for 30 years. Regular travellers know me and come running when the train stops. Business is always brisk,” he said. His wife makes and supplies bolis in batches of 50 every hour so that he can sell them fresh and hot.

Four individuals are known to make the authentic boli in Kadambur today and it was easy to locate them. But I sensed competition. Arumugasamy requested I accompany him to his house where his wife was preparing a fresh batch of bolis for the afternoon. His morning lot of 150 pieces was sold out. I plodded through bylanes towards Chinna Mani Nadar Compound, from where Arumugasamy appears to have monopolised the business.

Apparently, the boli makers are divided into two groups taking after two Iyer brothers — Rama Subbu Iyer and Krishna Iyer. But there is a conflict over which of the two brothers started the boli business first and whose bolis were more popular. I stopped by Rama Subbu Iyer’s old dilapidated house. A retired worker from a local school, Chakravarthy, stopped by to volunteer information: “As a teenager I used to buy one boli for six paise at Rama Subbu Iyer’s small joint here which was always crowded. Though he sold idli, dosa, halwa, tea and filter coffee, his popularity rose with the boli in the late 1950s.” In the early 80s, Rama Subbu’s vision dimmed, business dipped and he closed shop. After his death, the family moved out of Kadambur.

I checked his brother, Krishna Iyer’s house too, a newly renovated one opposite the post office. The owner was sceptical of letting me in, but confirmed that the house belonged to “Krishna Iyer of boli fame.” It was in this lane in the 1950s that Arumugasamy grew up watching Krishna Iyer and his wife make bolis. “My father used to work as a helper in his house and I would play in the compound with other children. Maami would be in the kitchen making bolis continuously and we would get to eat them occasionally. Krishna Iyer would make multiple trips to the railway station with freshly prepared bolis and sell them at 25 paise each,” says Arumugasamy.

It was a good business strategy as Krishna Iyer realised that the travel time between stations was long and there was no good food available on the way. People of Kadambur believe the boli was an invention of the Iyer brothers as a tasty snack for journeys.

When we reached Arumugasamy’s house, his wife Kuruammal was in the thick of action. She insisted I first eat one fresh from the tawa. I almost burnt my tongue. Hot vapours swirled out of the oil-kissed super-soft boli as I took my first bite. And thereafter everything melted in the mouth. One small boli was gone in two large bites and I yearned for the next. Said Kuruammal, who too grew up watching Iyer maami make bolis, “She used only milk to knead the maida and only ghee for frying the boli.” That gave a distinct lingering taste.

However, Kuruammal uses milk only for special orders like weddings and festivals. But she always uses mashed bengal gram and jaggery for stuffing instead of coconut for longer shelf-life of her product. The dal boli remains fresh for a day in room temperature and good for another three or four days if refrigerated, while the coconut boli needs to be consumed within three to four hours.

None of the present Kadambur Boli makers sells on trains now. The practice has been hijacked by vendors from adjacent Maniyachi town. The Kadambur Bolis that sell on trains now are bigger, thicker and stuffed with coconut and sell for Rs.5 or 6 a piece.

Like Arumugasamy and Thangandhi, boli seller Muthupandi also claims the buyers go directly to Kadambur Boli makers, because of the taste they maintain. People from neighbouring Madurai, Tirunelveli, Virudhunagar, Kanyakumari and even Erode and Coimbatore place big orders and come in person to take them.

On her son’s prodding, Kuruammal recalled mental notes of Iyer maami’s preparation and rolled out the first ones for the family. Once it met with approval, the neighbours were in for a treat. In 1988, she sent her husband with the first round of 100 bolis to the bus stand. He sold them at Rs.1.25 a piece and returned within an hour asking for more. The best place to sample the calorific boli is the homes of these individual makers. You should relish this irresistible all-season delicacy at least once. Because, the Kadambur Boli faces the threat of extinction once the present set of makers is gone.

HOW IT’S MADE

Ingredients (For making 200 bolis)

For dough: All-purpose refined flour (maida) One kg, Water (for kneading) One litre, Salt to taste, Oil 20 ml

For stuffing: Bengal gram (kadalai paruppu) One kg, Powdered jaggery One kg, Cardamom powder One tablespoon, Oil to fry

Method

1. Maida, salt and water are kneaded together to a pliable dough, which is coated with oil and kept aside for an hour.

2. Powdered jaggery is melted in 500 ml water, strained, cooled and added to bengal gram boiled in pressure cooker. It is then blended to a coarse paste; cardamom powder is added.

3. Lemon-sized balls of dough are flattened to a small disc on a greased banana leaf. The bengal gram-jaggery stuffing is placed in the centre and covered with the dough, ensuring all the sides are sealed properly.

4. With oil applied on finger tips, the dough is gently flattened and spread to the size of a chappati.

5. On the heated griddle, the boli is cooked on medium flame with a sprinkling of oil till the boli turns golden brown in colour. Served hot for best taste.

Hot vapours swirled out of the oil-kissed super-soft boli as I took my first bite.