Food diplomacy


By V. Gangadhar

IN A CLASS BY ITSELF: The vadai family is quite large.

IN A CLASS BY ITSELF: The vadai family is quite large.  

"Eat vada, it is very nice. Also have some sambar, you will love it." Thus spoke Indian President, Dr. Abdul Kalam, in a land that normally considers whale steak as a national delicacy. Our President is a remarkable man and did well to say nice things about vada and sambar at a reception hosted by the Indian ambassador to Norway (also accredited to Iceland) at Reykjavik during a recent state visit.

This was the first visit by an Indian head of state to Iceland and Dr. Kalam lost no time praising his favourite dishes, vada and sambar. It is hard to associate such delicacies with Iceland but have a look at the dishes served at the state dinner — medhu vada, idli, sambar, vada and coconut chutney. The food came from an Indian restaurant in Reykjavik run by an Indian woman from Bangalore.

I am glad our President chose to visit Iceland. How much do we know about that distant nation? I knew it was full of ice and was associated with the Vikings, including solid personalities like Hagar the Horrible and his formidable wife, Helga. Hagar would have done justice to the spread at the Indian reception.

With Dr. Kalam at the helm, it was natural that the dishes like tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, malai kofta and pulav gave way to south Indian delicacies, that too the humble vada.

We know it as vadai but outside the south, they call it vada. Over the years, idli and masala dosai surged ahead in popularity, but with Dr. Kalam saying a few good words about it, the vada can now march forward. We grew up on vadai and payasam made especially on festive occasions. Vadai also made an appearance on special tiffin days.

The vadai family was quite large — Ulundu vadai, paruppu vadai, medhu vadai, onion vadai, rasa vadai, thayir vadai and occasionally the more modern versions of cabbage and carrot vadai.

Beyond South India, the medhu vada and the thayir/dahi vada topped the popularity chart. Dahi vada, where the curd was saturated with sugar, is another popular national item. In the South, we go easy on the sugar but not in the rest of the country. Medhu vada in Mumbai restaurants is eaten with several helpings of sambar though traditional vada eaters prefer chutney. Too much sambar soaks the vada and kills its taste.

Vadai when served in South Indian feasts was not appreciated as it deserved to be because it was always in the company of other delicacies like appam, boli, Adirasam and the inevitable payasam. You need a solo appearance from the vadai to appreciate its qualities. The housewife did not regard vadai as a culinary challenge. But things can go wrong. Some times the paruppu (dal) vadai can be tough enough to challenge your teeth.

Do I remember any special places for high quality vadais? I am afraid not. People remember restaurants for the whiteness and softness of their idlis, but memories of vadais are not that clear.

During my school days, it was possible to go to play with the hard paruppu vadai hidden the pockets, though it meant extra washing to remove the oil stains. Dr. Kalam rightly commended sambar and vada, but why didn't he say anything about rasa vada and dahi vada? According to the PTI correspondent who was at the reception, the vada sambar was a big hit. Most Icelanders found it tastier than the traditional chicken tikka. Who knows, thanks to Dr. Kalam, we may start vada diplomacy with countries like Iceland. I can imagine the President inviting some leading Icelandic chefs to visit India and learn the art of making vada. A South Indian mami delegation, all specialists in making vada , can also visit Iceland. They may return triumphantly from Iceland after having learnt a new art — the making of frozen vada. There are clear advantages of having a South Indian at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan. Ask any vadai lover!

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