Summer vacation 20 years ago meant a mandatory trip to a hill town and an inflated library allowance. And then, the children were sent to the terrace with their borrowed books and a tin of snacks, to watch the yearâ€™s dried foods as they sat baking under the sun.
Papadam, appalam, vathal, baalaka, sandige, vadam...the names are many but these refer to dried foods made from different kinds of flours or sun dried vegetables and fruits that can be deep fried. These are traditional foods that evolved as a way to preserve produce in times when there was no technology to do so, and came in handy during hard times too.
As these goodies sat half dried, half gooey on the terrace or any other open space, the task of chasing away pesky crows and the occasional rodent visitors required a fight squad armed with weapons - hand fans and black fabric fastened to a wooden pole.
These traditional methods of preservation saw a lull period when people moved from independent houses to tiny flats, with limited access to open terraces. Local vendors began to make these and sell them in residential areas.
Annapoorani, an IT employee from Chennai, grew up in a tiny village near Trichy and her family has always made their own dried foods.
Describing the process, she says, â€śCome summer and it has become a mandatory ritual for my mom to make vadams, vathals and assorted pickles. My mom uses her precious, saved-for- years gunny sacks. Preparation starts close to Sivarathri. Prior to the day of making vadaam, mom washes the sacks and sun dries it to ensure it is super clean."
Annapoorani's family swears by IR 20 raw rice for making vadaam. The rice is cleaned, sun dried and then taken to the mill to be ground into very fine powder. Then, the raw rice powder is mixed with chili paste and lemon juice, with people snacking even on the raw dough. Whatever is left of the dough is used to squeeze out different shapes.
Pickling, too, is a popular method of preservation and one that greatly appeals to the South Indian tongue that loves its spice.
Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are connoisseurs of avakaya. The pickle, however, is a staple not just in the Telugu speaking states. All of South India loves avakaya with curd rice or with the borrowed paratha. The avakaya loyalists mix it with rice, add a generous ladle(!) of ghee or oil and have it just like that.
A very specific type of raw mango is purchased and cut skilfully by the vendor himself, right in front of the buyer. Making avakaya involves several steps: washing, drying, soaking in turmeric, chili, mustard, salt, dry channa and sesame oil. You canâ€™t vacation when your pickle is soaking at home. Every morning and evening, this mixture has to be mixed in. But the fiery red avakaya is worth all that.
The best baby mango pickles comes from the Telugu belt, swear pickle patriots. When soaked, the already small baby mango shrinks in size, contributing a tangy flavour to the salty and spicy brine and is simply, the best companion for the humble curd rice.
Karnataka's various long shelf life foods are called the baalaka, sandige (made from flour), happala (papad), uppinakayi (pickle) and tokku (grated pickle). Baalaka includes several vegetables preserved by steeping them in masalas and sun drying them with adequate salt. Spiced green chilli preserve is a prized baalaka.
Karnataka uses ragi, rice and other grains for its sandige and happala and they go amazingly well with piping hot Bisibele.
Keralaâ€™s best pickles and preserves come from sea food. Prawn and fish are carefully dried and pickled to last throughout the year. While vegetables are dried at home, fish is bought from the store, sun dried to a crisp.
Dried anchovy or Netthili karuvaadu is generally stored for a long time and is made into fried curries, sambal (Sri Lanka meets Kerala here), fries, pickles and gravies.
While sardine is the most popular dried fish variety in South India, fresh prawn (Chemmeen) is pickled with spice, salt and a lot of oil and is served with rice. Kerala pickle varieties include beef, chicken, mussels, prawn and fish. While most other dishes from Kerala are only mildly spicy because they are heavy on coconut, these pickles can be very hot on the tongue.
Kerala loves its pappadam. In fact, the state has the unique tradition of having pappadam with sweet kheers! Itâ€™s quite a sight to see an eager Malayali smash his pappadam in a river of pradhaman and attack it on a sadhya plantain leaf.
Despite power cuts and the smouldering heat about which South Indians never stop complaining, the five states do make best use of the season - at least, the stomach would agree!