Mini Krishnan recalls the crispy snack that’s been part of her meal for as long as she can remember.
Every time I search the shelves of supermarkets for that highly perishable item called Kerala pappadam I think with nostalgia of Thomas from Trichur who used to materialise once a week on Saturdays and exactly as we sat down to lunch. This was about 40 years ago which is about how long I’ve lived in Madras.
“Pappadam!” would come the call, both a plea and an announcement.
He was very thin, had a nervous wholly good-natured smile and was the least aggressive door-to-door salesman I ever did business with. And business it was with different sizes of the crispy that no Malayali can go without for long. Everybody praised our pappadams and those who drove miles to get the same thing from Ambika’s often munched thoughtfully on what Thomas provided, week after week, even during the monsoons. Once a year when he was due to go off to Kerala he would warn me in that musical Trichur twang of his, “Look here, I’m going…going for a few weeks. Do you want more than the usual quantity?” while simultaneously flapping and flicking a larger than usual bundle at me. I wordlessly handed over whatever he asked for, terrified at the thought of going without our daily fix of pappadam.
Made with a mix of urad and rice paste I’ve often been told that pappadam has something unhealthy in it that makes it puff up magnificently with that divine oily gleam. Some like it white and fluffy, some like it rather well done and flat. Either way it beats any dessert when it is freshly smashed into sambar or curd and scooped up. A weaker version of the pappadam is the appalam in non-Kerala cuisine. Lighter, possibly crisper when fresh but less satisfying than the real Indian-meal accompaniment, the all-conquering pappadam. There is an excruciatingly sensitive story by M.T. Vasudevan Nair in which a famished youngster waits for his uncle to leave so that he might at least mix the oil in which the pappadams had been fried for his uncle, into his own night-meal of rice.
Huge shield-like pappadams are served up at wedding feasts their golden colour announced by their scent as soon as the servers enter with baskets of them. Tiny pappadams strewn as snacks and nibbles are equally welcome, but soften and fade as rapidly as they bloom for the ready eater. When I saw 10 pappadams carefully packed and sold in the UK as “Poppadam” with the instruction to deep fry and serve two to a person, I thought of the minimum 5-6 pappadams that are munched at every meal (including breakfast) by Malayalis.
There is a bit of culinary history that French fries were invented in the war-kitchens of one of the French kings. Just when the cook had scooped up and drained some potato wedges from boiling fat, the king suddenly entered in a bad mood and asked for something to eat. In a state of panic the cook simply plunged the half-done potato wedges back into the frying pan, scooped them out again, peppered and salted them and served them up. Potatoes have never looked back since.
Well, whoever invented the pappadam must have got its recipe from the kitchens of heaven.