Indian snacks

Variety of vadai bought from a hawker stall in
a village on the way to Chinnakuppam, South India
Loving my Indian snacks

My earliest memories of Indian snacks must be the taste of putu mayam or string-hoppers eaten with brown sugar and shredded fresh coconut. 

I remember how the loose brown sugar would usually cake when exposed for too long but I used to enjoy crunching into the hardened chunks.  It was also probably the first time that I had a legitimate reason to eat with my hands. 

In school days, my secondary school friends and I would find every excuse to go to the town library.  It was then located in a building next to Johor Baru’s main Post Office. 

Our walk along Jalan Ibrahim to the library would take us pass Kerala Restaurant and Ee Hn’g Café, and we usually made a choice to go to either shop for a snack or drink. 

I tasted my first tosai with a side of coconut chutney and sambar on a banana leaf at Kerala Restaurant.  I used to watch in fascination, at how the cook would ladle a thin layer of batter onto a hot greased griddle and spread it out evenly with the base of the ladle.  The ladle was moved in a circular motion to form a pancake and then it was flipped to lightly cook both sides before being folded in half and served.

This was also where I had my first lesson in Indian dining etiquette because my friends and I discovered that there is a proper way to end a meal served on a banana leaf.  After finishing a meal the leaf should be folded inwards towards my heart to show respect or as a sign to the host that it was a good meal.  We used to joke about folding it outwards or fold it sideways to the left or right, just to be different.

A crispy scroll of paper tosai
Besides the plain tosai, rava and masala versions, restaurants have now come up with a creative menu of tosai that includes a wafer-thin, crispy paper tosai which I’ve learnt to enjoy.  Some cooks skillfully make such thin, crispy and large pancakes which when they are rolled up, has lengths that are triple the diameter of the serving plate.  These spectacular scrolls are not only attention-grabbing but are also fun to crunch my way through.

While I prefer savoury flavours, I also appreciate a sweet alternative in the fluffy apom.  Call it apong, apam or apom, this is a bowl-shaped pancake cooked in a little wok and eaten with sweetened coconut milk.  It has the best of both worlds, soft and spongy in the middle and thin and crispy on the outer edges. 

Sweet apom sold at a market stall
But my all-time favourite snack must be vadai fritters – both the doughnut and disc-shaped variety.  I can remember Aunty Polly buying a bagful home after work and showing me how to enjoy the disc-shaped vadai made from lentils or dhal.  As a kid I was not brave enough to take the chillie but I can never forget how my aunty used to eat with relish, alternately chewing the freshly fried vadai with a bite of fresh green chillie.

A popular vadai stall along Jalan Wong Ah Fook made this snack more attractive by creating them in little bite-size balls that can be easily popped into the mouth.  Vadai stalls at most morning and night markets often make the vadai thinner probably for a more, crispy and crunchy effect but freshly fried vadai always tastes great.  Now every time I visit the markets, I will not fail to indulge in my favourite yummy Indian snacks and I always want green chillies to go with them.

When I was in India, I enjoyed ulundu vadai or the doughnut version of vadai for breakfast every day and it was so good that I could eat it without any gravies.  For almost two weeks I zeroed in on this vadai from the breakfast buffet and had my fill of the best I’ve ever tasted.  But the whole pepper corns they used in this delicious vadai started to give me a sore throat so I had no choice but to refrain from further indulging in this beautiful breakfast food.

Well-meaning friends always remind me not to drink regular water or eat street food in India and will not hesitate to regale me with all sorts of horror stories about the reactions to consuming such food or water.  But while I was in South India, on a journey to Chinnakuppam fishing village and the coach stopped at a little village for refreshments, I could not resist tasting the paruppu vadai or lentil fritters from a roadside hawker. 

It was everything I expected from freshly fried lentil vadai and my thrill for indulging in it was double because it was served wrapped in humble newsprint, a sheet probably from yesterday’s newspaper.  This was also where I discovered that the vadai sold by our local vendors often used crushed lentils instead of whole lentils or dhal like this hawker who made authentic vadai in an Indian village.  Maybe it’s my perut besi [strong stomach] because no, I did not have any adverse effects from eating street food in India.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 4 May 2011

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