Soft Focus Food

Memories are made of Maddur vada

The iconic savoury turns 100 this month.   | Photo Credit: K. MURALI KUMAR

My father summed up, a la Gordon Ramsay, what he called a “fine” Maddur vada. “It is brittle yet soft,” he said. “And with just a little pressure, the vada should disintegrate like sooji, powdery and dry.” “Never soggy,” he added for good measure. The iconic savoury turns 100 this month.

Maddur is a sleepy town some 80 km from Bengaluru and it was in April 1917 that its famous vada first appeared in Vegetarian Tiffin Room (VTR) in Maddur’s only railway station. From then to the present, there have been generations of foodies who have done road trips from Bengaluru to Mysuru and stopped at Maddur just to buy the vadas. It certainly seemed that the best way to celebrate the vada’s centenary year would be to make an early morning road trip to Maddur and take a bite.

I decide to stop briefly at Ramnagar for breakfast. There are granite outcrops wherever the eye can see, a landscape made famous by Sholay, which was filmed here. A villager tells us the stall at Maddur railway station has shut down and Maddur Tiffany is the “real thing” now. Coincidentally, I find that one of the owners, D.N. Chathura, has also landed there today. He is a fourth generation descendant of H.D. Hebbar who managed VTR at the station from 1948 to 1973. Chathura is happy to share the Maddur vada story with me.

It all began with the River Shimsha that flows along Maddur. In the early 20th century, trains hauled by steam engines chugged on meter gauge tracks to reach Bengaluru. The easy access to Shimsha meant that all passing trains stopped at Maddur for 20 to 30 minutes just to fill up their water tanks. As soon as the train stopped, Ramchandra Budhya from Kundapura, clearly a born entrepreneur, used the time to entice the passengers to buy his idlis and vadas.

“Family legend has it that on a particularly busy day, he just mixed up some ingredients and instead of making them in the shape of pakoras, which would take longer to cook, he flattened the mixture into discs and fried them. The result was a new snack that became popular as Maddur vada.” After that, of course, flat became the new black.

Vegetarian Tiffin Room at Maddur railway station, where the Maddur vada was first sold, shut shop in January.

Vegetarian Tiffin Room at Maddur railway station, where the Maddur vada was first sold, shut shop in January.   | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

Budhya started VTR in 1917 to sell his legendary vada. In 1948, H.D. Hebbar, Chathura’s ancestor, took over. He followed the recipe meticulously and later, his son D. Gopalaiah decided to sell the vadas outside the station as well. Gopalaiah’s son, Jayaprakash, started the standalone eatery called Maddur Tiffanys in 1987. It was only early this year that VTR at the railway station shut shop. “There were too many headaches in running it,” says Chathura with a laugh. “Trains stop only for a couple of minutes, illegal vendors hop on selling their versions of Maddur vadas, and the Railways pegs the price of the vada at Rs. 10.” So, on January 28 this year, another icon became history.

Chathura urges me to check out Maddur Tiffany. He won’t tell me how many vadas are fried each day but says that on weekends, sales are high, about 1,000 vadas at least.

Whole, hot, also broken

As I reach the outskirts of Maddur, a large board by the highway proclaims: Maddur Tiffanys. My destination has arrived rather easily. It is an unpretentious eatery with an open kitchen and a grimy board that lists out all the South Indian delicacies it offers—akki roti, dosai, idli, uddin vada and, of course, Maddur vada. A glass showcase has ‘broken Maddur vadas’ to be sold by weight: ₹200 a kg.

I ask the man behind the counter if I can see how the vadas are made. He goes into the kitchen to find out.

As I wait, I chat with Harish, a gram panchayat member who is here to buy some vada. “Sir Ronald Reagan liked Maddur vada and would ask for it,” he says. Jaffer Sharief, the former railway minister, liked them so much that all trains going up to Mumbai, Chennai or Hyderabad, would carry the snack. Harish leaves with a takeaway parcel generously filled with Maddur vadas. I notice a waiter going into a long annexe behind the kitchen with a plastic bag that has kitchen coats and caps.

Soon, I am ushered into the small kitchen. An industrial-sized electric chimney is buzzing loudly. Three men, clad in coats and caps, are making vadas in a seamless tango. Every day, says the manager, two teams of three men each work in two shifts. Ramesh is slicing onions into thin juliennes on a log of wood that is deeply grooved, thanks to much action over the years. Chathura told me earlier that the onions come from Pune and have the right amount of water content that gives the vadas the “real taste”. Ramesh, who chops up one gunny bag of onions in a shift, is surprisingly dry-eyed. “If you cut onions every day, there won’t be tears,” he says with a smile.

But the ‘leader’ of the trio, the chef, is the mixer of the ingredients. Subbanna, 51, has been working here for four years, having learned to “mix” from his predecessor by “just standing and watching”. He mixes the sliced onions with sooji (bought from one particular mill in Bengaluru), salt, ghee, butter and maida.

Maddur Tiffanys on the outskirts of Maddur is best known for its Maddur vada.

Maddur Tiffanys on the outskirts of Maddur is best known for its Maddur vada.   | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

“The ghee is for fragrance and the butter for crispiness,” Subanna explains, adding that butter from Mandya is the best for the vadas. He mixes with precision, without tasting, and pushes the dough towards Venkatesh, who sections it into balls, flattens them, and slides them into the oil. In a minute, I count him making at least 50 vadas. The trio estimates 500 vadas per shift.

In spite of being assailed by Maddur vada all day, Subbanna eats it for breakfast. “It is my Gowri amma (holy mother) who has fed and clothed me.” He is not sure if Venkatesh has it in him to learn “mixing” but expresses confidence in a trainee in the second shift.

Soon, two busloads of passengers come in. The Maddur vadas are ferried to the outer kitchen. I get some hot vadas packed.

Back in Bengaluru, two hours later, I open the paper box and put them on a plate. They are cold, but I have been warned by Subbanna to not reheat them. “The taste will go,” he said. My father breaks a piece gently. The centre, he declares, is a bit soggy. The taste, he says, is okay. I remember Chathura telling me the raw ingredients available today are not of the old standard. Yes, not many things remain the same. But the Maddur vada is still trying valiantly.

The author is a freelance writer who believes that everything has a story waiting to be told.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 1:54:37 AM |

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