Thirattupaal, paal payasam and poli…even the calorie-conscious cannot keep away from these traditional desserts

At the dining table, when my father begins a sentence with “Let me show you how it's done…,” it means dessert is in progress, and a life lesson is forthcoming. I usually stop whatever it is I'm doing and watch like an obedient acolyte as the master creates high-calorie art. Let me share some of those visions.

Of an evening, he unveiled with a flourish a block of milk khova, brought from the temple town of Srivilliputhur. Khova, I must reiterate, is milk stir-cooked till it solidifies and then sweetened generously. Now khova, he said, should never be confused with the Dharwar peta or Belgaum kunda. And none of these can hold a candle to home-made thirattupaal, he concluded. After this edification, he carved out a side of the khova and dropped it into his plate. He then made a depression in it, as if to test the texture. Then he took the lid off a container of fresh ghee, liquid and golden. He tipped it, letting the ghee form a pool over the khova. He drew in the aroma, nodded once, and tucked in. My diabetic mother had left five minutes ago, afraid looking at that plate would give her a stroke. Wise woman.

Taste of nostalgia

On the other hand, my grandmother, who supervised the proceedings, approved. When she makes poli, she also makes milk payasam, because that's how she likes it. There is something about people two generations ago that makes them hardier than us, and more resistant to the unsavoury effects of food. While cleaner air and tougher lifestyles are usually credited, they lose no opportunity in letting us know that the food was somehow better then.

Old timers often follow aromas and tastes into the past, and bring back delicious memories. Small onion sambar, for instance. “The little onions were so much more fragrant then, as were the spices you ground into the sambar. Divine!” Appalams toasted on a charcoal stove, snacks made from hand-pounded rice flour or sevai squeezed at home are frequent refrains. “The aroma of fresh ghee on cooked drumstick leaves would draw people in from a mile away,” I've been told.

But memories aren't all. They tend to bring back some wicked ideas from these nostalgic trips.

Come mango season, a substantial chunk of the household income is set aside to religiously buying the fruit by the dozen. And you don't just eat it.

There are ceremonies to be observed, which involve fresh cream, ice cream and milk. Jackfruit must be bought whole, and consumed with respect. Obeisance must be paid; with a bowl of honey. Dip that buttery boat, fill it and pop it in.

This attention to food and tastes is bewildering sometimes. Every meal is enhanced, every morsel is planned. You never leave home hungry, you never come back empty-handed. Bring back halwa from Madurai, petha from Agra, paneer jolbi from Puri, khakra, fafda and sev from Ahmedabad.

Food for the soul

However, this isn't just about pandering to your taste buds. There's a legacy here, a subtle message wrapped in sweetmeats and snacks. It is through food that culture is easily digested, that life is enriched.

With our propensity to lifestyle diseases, it would be foolhardy to eat like our ancestors did. But pushing away that child-like enthusiasm for food would starve our soul. After all, there is something spectacular about watching a vessel-full of warm thirattupaal disappear in seconds, to the sounds of frank appreciation and a TMS melody.

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Anand VenkateswaranJune 19, 2012