Whoever thought a culinary mishap on a railway platform would end like this? Shreedutta Chidananda

Noon is a bad time to visit Maddur. The bus stand is grey and parched, the neighbouring all-night coffee shop — so beloved a haunt of Bangalore’s young couples — is unrecognisably torpid, and the roadside stores wear a general look of disinterest. Even State Highway 17, the town’s big, throbbing lifeline, appears somewhat subdued.

Maddur’s celebrated vadé too shares in the quietude at this hour, hardly looking the jolly, ubiquitous snack it is made out to be. There are indeed vendors thrusting buckets of the stuff up at bus windows — a picture familiar to generations of passengers on the Bangalore-Mysore route — but only a couple. Their vadés are disappointing, small and wafer-like, worth no more than their two rupees. Further down the road, bakeries look lazy and empty, their vadés thicker than the ones at the bus stand but cold nonetheless.

Highway sensation

The highway is necessary to put the Maddur vadé story into context, though; SH 17 has been integral to the phenomenal popularity of the product. Sitting 80 km from Bangalore and 60 from Mysore, Maddur is the perfect stop on the highway for travellers between the cities. And when the length of the whole journey is (roughly) only three hours, the halfway halt lends itself more to a quick snack than a complete meal. It is this demand the vadé has relentlessly met.

The hawking starts 30 km before Maddur and extends to a similar distance past it, beginning at Ramanagara in one direction and Mandya in the other. Vendors wait at traffic stops at each major town on that route, waving packets of vadé at car windows, while any self-respecting eatery will stack a mound of the stuff on the counter.

But the road didn’t always supply the Maddur vadé’s clientele; in fact, the dish was born alongside the tracks in a moment of expediency. The story, apocryphal or not, is set sometime in the first half of the last century at the Maddur railway station. One of the “pakoda” (the exact nature of the fritter is debated) vendors on the platform leaves his frying too late one day, with the next train barely minutes away. In desperation, he hits upon an idea: rather than waste time attempting to roll the dough into balls, he flattens it between his palms, and then hurriedly fries the resulting patties. The preparation is immediately popular with curious passengers; so much that when the vendor returns the following day with the original stuff, they demand to be served the new vadé.

This vendor of legend, H. Nagaraju claims this dusty Friday afternoon, is Madhvachar, a direct ancestor of his. The 60-year-old Nagaraju owns the popular Maddur Tiffanys restaurant (now operating out of three neighbouring properties on SH17), the big daddy of eateries in Maddur. “I can’t tell you exactly how far back it was but it’s true. But although the vadé was born, it didn’t achieve its present status for a long time.” The credit for that, Nagaraju says, must go to his uncle H.D. Hebbar, who perfected the recipe in the 1970s, and brothers Subramanya and Jayaprakash, who then identified the potential of the highway as a market for their product.

“Channapatna has its toys, Ramanagara its silk, Srirangapatna its fort, Mysore its palaces; but what do we have?” asks H.N. Chathura, Nagaraju’s son. “When these burger joints came up on the highway, we feared our business would be hit, but nothing has changed. It’s remarkable. We owe everything to this vadé.”

Before Tiffanys opened in 1990, Nagaraju’s elders ran other establishments in town; they still operate the Refreshments Room at the railway station, something they’ve done since 1954. “Today, it may only be 15 per cent of our total business, but it’s still important to us,” Nagaraju says. “But we have to sell it for not more than six rupees, so obviously the quality is not the same it is here.”

Tiffanys itself is largely empty this afternoon, except for the odd family. Although there is little sign of it outside, an industrial amount of activity gets underway in the kitchens as the clock hits three. In a little furnace of a room, its walls and switches thoroughly blackened over, Subbanna and Nanjunda sit on either side of a giant tray. The latter works the onions into the dough, before tossing chunks of it to his partner. Greying, toothless Subbanna — 50 years he’s been at this job — sets the dough on a wooden anvil, flattens it with the back of his palm, and slides it into the oil. Two frying cycles later, the air is thick with the smell of the vadés (legend has it, reveals Nagaraju, that in the “olden days” the aroma travelled as far as the highway — a few hundred metres from the railway station).

Going places

As evening falls and vadés are transported out of kitchens everywhere, Maddur whirrs into life. Shops are full, lights are on, and the town’s favourite export looks its gay best.

The crowd is building at Tiffanys too, the vadé invariably on every table. It is thick yet crisp, the burnt onions oddly still juicy. Some would call it overpriced at Rs.12, but it’d be impossible to mark it any lower with their quality of ingredients, protests Nagaraju.

At the Sri Basaveshwara Canteen, a slightly more modest outlet on the highway, 12-year-old Ravi and his mother have their hands full. “You find a lot more people in the evening,” he points out, serving hungry customers. “Somehow we never tire of eating it.”

A white-knuckle “share-auto” ride away from the bus stand is the railway station, where it all first began. Vendors S.K. Nagaraj and Lalu wear their Southern Railway coats, wheel their carts out, and wait — with the ease of those who know exactly how long it is going to take — for the 6:15 Tirupati passenger. “I sell idly and masala dosa too,” he smiles. “But there’s only one thing they want to buy.”

HOW IT’S MADE

(for approximately 15-20 vadés)

Ingredients

1/4 kg onion

1/4 kg rava

1/8 kg maida

Salt to taste

A pinch of rice flour

Groundnut oil

Method

Cut the onions into thin strands or threads and pour a little oil on them. Onions are the vadé’s principal ingredient, and the juicier they are and the better they’re cut (first held one way under the knife, then rotated by 90 degrees), the better the dish will taste. Add the rava and salt; the moisture in the onions is sometimes sufficient for them to mix with the rava, but a little water is also added. Maida is now added and mixed well; care should be taken to see that the dough is not kneaded at any point but just gently worked. To make the vadé crisp, a tiny amount of rice flour is added.

It is critical that this dough is now fried immediately; the rava should linger for as little time as possible if it is to retain its coarse nature. The frying (in lukewarm oil) is done in two stages: the vades are first fried for a few minutes (till the air smells of them) so that they lose any moisture; any oil is allowed to drain before they’re fried a second time, this time till golden brown. Eat with chutney.