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Poppadum KING

HIS POPPADUMS see more of the world than most people do in a lifetime. And their journey always begins here. In good old Chennai. We're talking pedigree poppadums, by the way. After all, in terms of social mobility, how far can a run-of-the-mill urad dal pancake go? Most of them just manage a quick spot of sun bathing on teeming roads before they're crammed into claustrophobic plastic packets, tossed into simmering waves of murky oil and then digested with a crunch and some rather unrefined pickled lemons.

Not Lankalingam's poppadums though. They're destined for bigger and better things - like elegant British curry lunches at Buckingham Palace and tête-à-têtes with the Queen.

Thanks to these one and a half million Chennai-born and U.K-bound poppadums, the city's once-deferentially low-key appalams have come a long way.

Though Lankalingam deals in appalams, they masquerade in England as pappadams, or "poppadums". Luckily for all exporters of Indian food who want to bring home the gravy, the British are in the midst of a love affair with `curry'. "The average Britisher simply loves Indian food and has a curry night at least once a week," says Lankalingam. "They work at recreating the Indian experience at home — buy Indian beer, Indian music and scented candles." And once the veena's twanging softly, the candles glimmering politely, and the beer fizzing gently, the Indian dinner's unveiled — (with a dramatic tabla roll?): naans from Greece, chicken tikka from Britain and poppadums from Chennai — all cooked and ready to heat.

Chennai-born and dried, they travel in carefully packed cartons to the U.K., where they are sold as gourmet food to about 14 different companies, including brands like St. Michael, Sharwood (the brand that supplies the Buckingham Palace), Phileas Fogg, Knorr, and stores such as Sainsbury and Marks and Spencer. Lankalingam caters to about 88 per cent of the premium English market - making him the poppadum king of England. Which brings us back to sweltering Chennai, where it all began about 25 years ago when his father S. Murugesu decided to send Chennai's humble appalam on its first organised trip abroad. "This was at a time when the quality of the poppadums going to the U.K. was of a very low quality," says Lankalingam, adding that a number of these poppadums were "sun dried on the side of the road and exported with bicycle tread marks." However, the flavours of the Indian roads evidently didn't put off any of the U.K.-based Indians craving for a taste of home.

When his father stepped into the poppadum business, they decided to centralise production - grind the urad dal, control the water, the flour and the spices - then, manufacture, clean, pack and fumigate the papads themselves to control quality.

Eventually they realised that their biggest market was not really the Indian community in the U.K., it was the British hankering for a taste of exotica. "We began catering to them and since the average British housewife neither has the time nor the utensils to fry poppadums, we started making the `Ready to Eat' variety," says Lankalingam. Today, between 60 and 68 per cent of the one and a half million poppadums they make in a day are ready to eat.

Sharwood owns the frying factories in the U.K. that make these poppadums. "They buy, fry and sell," says Lankalingam, adding, "the plant in Manchester is practically run by machines. It's so advanced that they pick, fry, air dry, wipe and pack about half a million poppadums in a day." At Lankalingam's Chennai factories however, manpower reigns supreme because the temperamental appalam has to be pounded and rolled by hand, and then sun dried if it is to encompass the real taste-of-India. But manpower notwithstanding, Lankalingam's certainly keeping up with his U.K. counterparts hygiene-wise.

A visit to the Madhavaram factory can leave you shaken for days if you're the messy type. They'll look at you sternly, make you fill forms swearing you're free of everything from a cold to SARS, cover your feet in plastic, your head with a singularly unfashionable cap, and divest you of all your worldly (and possibly `germ-ridden') possessions. Only once you're scrubbed to perfection are you let in to watch the poppadum making process.

K. Rajachandran Prakash, the genial General Manager of Lanson, the parent company of the poppadum production unit, begins the tour at four huge tubs, which are used to mix the urad dal and saline water. Once the mixing's done, the huge rolls of dough are punched, pounded and generally beaten up thoroughly by a tough-looking group of men. After that, the dough's efficiently rolled into long and winding tubes and cut with fascinating speed and accuracy by another group of workers. "Every single pellet has to be between 12.5 and 13.5 gms for today's order," Rajachandran says. (Since all these poppadums have to eventually fit into prefabricated tubs in the U.K., not one of the calculations can afford to go wrong.) Each of the pellets is then hand-rolled into a poppadum, which is then pressed into the desired size.

After two sessions of sun basking, they're inspected for flaws, then packed and shipped away. (Unless, of course they're for Chennai.

Udhayam food has recently tied up with Lanson for DOTS, which is being marketed here.)

So, the next time you're stuck with boring old curd rice and poppadum for lunch, smirk stylishly. After all, that's what they eat at Buckingham Palace.


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