noshtalgia Food

Pilfering food from grandma’s kitchen

What she did inside the dark space was a mystery, but the aromas could not be hidden

“Home-made,” proclaimed the packet of javarisi (sago/sabudana) vadams, those small, white, crunchy papad-cousins. Of course, I fell for it. At dinner, as I dolefully crunched my way through the sorry purchase, my son asked, “What is your hang up about home-made javarisi vadam?”


My fondness for javarisi vadams goes back some 30-odd years to when my parents left my brothers and me behind with dad’s family while they traipsed off to the U.S. on a honeymoon that was some 15 years late.

Woodfired kitchen

Grandma lived in an old house in Chennai’s Triplicane area. The most important room there was the kitchen: a dark cavernous space with walls coated with soot from the woodfired kitchen. No modern gas stoves for my grandma. The only sources of light were a solitary dim bulb hanging from the ceiling and a skylight that had a dirty and cracked glass pane.

How my grandma saw what she was doing was a mystery, but the aromas and the final dishes that came out were incomparable.

But we didn’t always get a share of everything she made. So my dad’s youngest brother — who understood a bored child better than all the others — taught us the fine art of pilfering food. We tried to use the skylight to keep a watch on grandma below but the dirt and grime defeated us.

To get back to the vadams. Summer in that house meant pickles, appalams and vadams. And javarisi vadam in particular.

First, grandma would make the preparatory koozhu or porridge. We were allowed to help her. The sago was soaked in water, and it was our job to check if it had become soft enough, which involved popping a few grains into our mouth to the steady accompaniment of grandma’s scolding.

Then the soaked beads would be transferred to a huge cauldron and mounted on a fire. It had to cook until it turned into a translucent mush. Under grandma’s watchful eyes, we all took turns to stir the mix. At various intervals, she would add salt, asafoetida (not the powder but a pinch from a large block, ground in a pestle and mortar), green chilli paste, and some lemon juice. And we would stir and stir till our arms ached.

Fragrant oil

Once it was ready, she would give us a cupful of it mixed with fragrant gingelly oil; as much to check the taste as to bribe us. We lapped it up eagerly as we waited for the mix to cool. The next step was to find long plastic sheets and wipe them clean. Back then, plastic was not the bugbear it is today.

Once grandma decided they were clean enough, everyone would march to the terrace carrying koozhu, ladles, sheets. Sitting in the hot sun, we would first lay out the sheets and weight the corners down with stones. We would then oil the sheets and pour out spoonfuls of gruel, flattening each into a little disc.

After, we would leave the sun to work its magic. This was where the bribe came in. The vadams had to be guarded from birds, squirrels and thieving kids. It was on these long afternoons that my uncle showed us the joy of eating half-dried vadams. Scrape the edge and roll it, he would instruct. Then use the rolled bit to slowly peel it off the sheet. What we got was a chewy disc with the texture of marshmallow and hints of lemon and green chilli.

We would mount guard and shoo away the non-human thieves, as we helped ourselves. In the evening, the sheets would be carried in, to be sunned again the next day.

Grandma always made extra to account for the stolen vadams but that didn’t stop her from whacking us if she caught us. Finally, the ones that survived us and other thieves dried to a crisp and were packed away.

Then came the treat. We would watch eagerly as grandma heated a huge kadai of oil, and dropped a few dry vadams in. What came out were fluffy and crunchy white clouds that we grabbed even as grandma tried to drop them into a box so that there would be enough to eat with lunch or dinner.


Tired of my son’s asides, I decided to show him the difference between home-made and store-bought stuff. I was surprised at how much I remembered. Except, instead of plastic, I used banana leaves from the garden. As I taught my son the joys of stirring the mix, eating the half-dry vadams, and finally frying the final crisp disc, I wondered if I was brave enough to try my hand at grandma’s pickles.

Pilfering food from grandma’s kitchen


Javarisi vadam

(Not exactly how my grandma made it, but it works)


Sago 1 cup

Lemon 1

Green chillies 3-4

Asafoetida powder 1/2 tsp

Salt 1 tsp

Water 5-6 cups

Gingelly oil 2 tbsp


1. Wash the sago, drain and soak in one cup of water for an hour. Grind the chillies to a paste and extract the juice of the lemon.

2. Put a wide-bottomed vessel on the fire and boil the water. Now add the soaked sago and cook till the grains are translucent. Mix in the salt, asafoetida and green chilli paste and stir well. Take the vessel off the flame and allow the mixture to cool.

3. Now add the lemon juice and mix well. The mix is ready.

4. If you’re using banana leaves, oil the leaf well. You can also use a thin cotton sheet. Drop the mix in spoonfuls on the cloth/ leaf in neat lines and leave out under the hot sun.

Bring in at dusk. Repeat until vadams are dried to a crisp (takes 2-3 days).

5. To remove from cloth, sprinkle some water on the reverse side and slowly peel the vadams off.

Dry in the sun for one more day and store in an airtight container.

Fry a few at a time in hot oil whenever needed.

Note: You can add more lime if you like but too much of it causes the fried vadams to stick to your teeth.

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Printable version | Aug 2, 2020 1:29:15 PM |

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