All good things, goes the saying, must come to an end. But this is not always bad. Sometimes, the things you think you will take to the grave with you are suddenly kicked out of your life, and replaced by something even more awesome. Such a thing happened to me recently.
We must pause here and talk a little about the crunchy little pieces of heaven called medhu vadai which are casually eaten for breakfast in Tamil Nadu. These golden-brown, little deep-fried rings of ground urad dal, expertly spiced with black pepper, by themselves as delectable as anything that came out of a Thamizh kitchen, become even more awesome when they are dipped in a proper sambar (not the excrescence that passes for the divine dip in places where they dump a kilo of sugar in it and turn it into a payasam).
This combination, flippantly referred to as sambar vadai, can compete only with the ghee-laden goodness that is venn pongal (if this reminds you of mathematics, NO PONGAL FOR YOU!) for designation as the breakfast of the gods.
The pongal at a restaurant in the Thamizh heartland - one of the two contenders for the title of breakfast of the gods in Tamil Nadu.
Growing up in Tamil Nadu, I took these things (the aforementioned avatars of ambrosia - venn pongal and sambar vadai) for granted. I never neglected them - in fact my personal best is two dozen vadais at one sitting. I was a growing boy with excellent taste, so no judging. But I did not revere them as I do today. And for that irreverence, I paid the price - I have been for the past 12 years, exiled from the motherland, and live in a sambar-vadai-less desertscape populated with pesarattu and punugulu.
Even in my current home state of Telangana, known for the fiery nature of its food - I suspect they steep green chillies in the drinking water so that it matches the food - they dump a ton of sugar in their sambar. And so I have lived, yearning for the vadai and pongal from my childhood, ever cursing my miserable fate for being devoid of those divine tastes.
I guess by now you get the picture - I love sambar vadai. For something as strong as this bond to be broken, one has to undergo an experience that is profound, something that reaches deep into what makes this bond so strong, rips it apart, and re-weaves it into something even stronger and more powerful. Little would I have guessed that something like that would happen to me, let alone to me and sambar vadai.
The delectable sambar vadai, the other of the two contenders for the title of breakfast of the gods.
When I first chanced upon the restaurant Kodi Kura Chitti Gaare, I made a mental note that I would go and check it out sometime. However, when my friend Kashyap translated it for me - it literally means Small Vadais with Chicken Curry - I declared Code Red, cleared my schedule and turned up for lunch. Their flagship dish was a variation on my beloved sambar vadai, and I just had to taste it forthwith.
When I made it to the restaurant, it was overflowing with patrons - always a good sign. Folks walking out were either talking enthusiastically about the food, or were in a zombified food stupor that only boded well for what awaited me within. After a short wait, I was shown to a table for two. Since I was alone, I shared my table with another gentleman (I assume he was - there was no eye-contact or social intercourse, just the usual phubbing that passes for acceptable public behaviour today) and immediately set about ordering a meal of favourites.
I ordered the vellulli kodi charu - a garlic chicken soup that was sufficiently thin to dunk the vadai in, a portion of the titular kodi kura chitti gaare (hereinafter referred to as KKCG - I am NOT typing out the whole name again!) and finally, a plate of their special boneless fish fry - slices of murrel covered in the red, fiery spice batter and deep fried just enough for the fish to cook tenderly.
As I waited for the food to arrive, I had no idea what a life-changing experience I was about to have. I did not know that this would spell disaster for a lifelong relationship I had held till that point - I was here to merely sample a culinary curiosity that was well-recommended. So I whiled away the time, blissfully ignorant of the monumental change that was about to befall me. After a decent amount of time - everything is made from scratch so it was an expected wait - the soup was delivered, followed almost immediately by the KKCG.
All parts of both dishes were steaming hot, and I had to wait a bit before they reached edible temperatures. I occupied myself trying to get a decent picture of the KKCG, not something I was very successful at. When I finally tucked in, I dedicated one vadai to soak in the soup, while the others were deployed with the chicken curry. Before we venture further, I must say a few words about chicken curry in general, about my mom’s chicken curry in particular, and the formative role it played during my impressionable childhood.
Like any good Thamizh boy, my staple diet every morning was either idli (which I hated vehemently, a hatred I soundly reject and regret today) or dosai (which I loved then, love now, and will love till I go to that great big South Indian Restaurant in the Sky.). This much was usual. What was unusual (I know now - I didn’t then and took for granted) was that these were accompanied by non-vegetarian dishes. Idlis and dosais combined with eggs sunny side up (we called them bullseyes), mutton curries, chicken curries, or a mutton or chicken roast with gravy. Amongst these, my favourite, and what I miss the most today, was always the chicken curry.
Why? Very simple - the flavours of the chicken and the masalas were richer, more satisfying and tasted heavenly, not merely because our palates were a lot less jaded or because the produce was not as contaminated as today, but because a few ingredients have been forever lost: the simple uncomplicated love and dependence that disappears the moment we grow up and become adults, trust that is yet to be broken between everyone at the table and common beliefs not yet challenged by a harsh and unforgiving world. Those were the ingredients that made the chicken curry so tasty. We can follow the same recipe today, yet cannot recreate the magical experience that is remembered.A culinary hiraeth, so to speak. Perhaps this is what the Danes call hygge. Yes, please go Google the words, I’ll wait. And don’t forget the tissues. All right, someone was cutting onions back there!
Back to the restaurant we go now. The soup was hearty and thin, and combined beautifully with the vadai I soaked in it. The chicken curry that was part of the KKCG had equal parts curry and chicken, and on its own, was a winner of a dish. It was simple and complicated and did not try to be anything fancy. It was hearty with big bold country flavours. The spice level was rather lower than I expected - the dish being from Guntur, where gunpowder is a food item and the addition of copious quantities of crushed red chilli powder to a dish is a mere beginning - it is followed up with freshly ground green chillies and black pepper for good measure. They do throw in a bunch of dried red chillies to steep in the broth and add a little bit of spice that makes it just right. They did none of that to this dish, and it was a well-balanced curry bursting with flavour.
When the vadai (I cannot bring myself to call it chitti gaare - sorry folks!) was added to the curry, the combination was beyond my wildest expectations. Within the first couple of mouthfuls, it had catapulted itself to the top of my ‘I can eat just this one food for the rest of my life’ list. For the rest of the meal, I was oblivious to my surroundings, and may or may not have made loud appreciative noises about the food. I suddenly noticed that the fish fry had appeared magically on my table, and dived right in.
On any other day, the fish fry would have merited a column on its own - it was that good. But on this day, it simply paled into insignificance, rather like Neli McKenzie’s unbeaten 155 in the match in which Sehwag made 319. All this food was polished off in record time, and much enjoyment was had. The big realisation that my relationship with sambar vadai was in trouble did not come till a few days after when, after looking at it listed on the menu at Chutney’s (who are also guilty of sugaring their sambar into a payasam), I skipped and went straight for the steamed dosai.
And then it hit me - this was a momentous thing. My love for sambar vadai, one of the few pure untainted things in my life, was now gone, replaced forever by the KKCG. I have tried to figure out what happened, what made this unthinkable thing happen, and the best I can come up with is that in KKCG, two powerful things, both elements from my childhood - the magical medhu vadai and the heavenly home style chicken curry - combined beautifully, like a partnership between Sachin’s measured but destructive aggression and MSD’s lusty hitting, and gave me a culinary experience like no other.
So now my love affair with sambar vadai is, alas, in the past. This change is yet to stand the true test of actually facing a real sambar vadai in Tamil Nadu - I am sure that’s going to be an emotional experience. But a mirror once broken cannot be put together, and I’m afraid KKCG has effectively spoilt sambar vadai for me.