As the hot summer afternoon gives way to a dusty, breezy evening, the streets of Salem take on a life of their own. Children begin to head back home from school, traders wake up from their siesta and carts are strategically placed on the busiest streets in the city. The wooden slabs and iron-wrought knives are brought out, and vegetables are chopped and grated faster than one thought possible.
All the labour, of course, goes into making the famous street food staple of this town - the thattuvadai set. The dish consists of a generously chutnied salad, sandwiched between two thattuvadais, the crunchy gram flour crisps the town makes by the mill. Grated carrots, beetroots, cucumber, onion and raw mangoes are wedged between the two thattuvadais and are generously smeared with garlic and tomato chutney. This street food attracts hundreds of visitors to the makeshift stalls every evening between 4 and 10 pm.
The humble beginnings of this snack lie at the foothills of Yercaud, a popular hill station in the district. Oral history in the region dictates that Balakrishnan, a local merchant, began selling thattuvadais and murruku to visitors who were making their way up the mountains. Soon enough, he began to innovate and decided to add a little zing to his offering, with a homemade tomato chutney and seasonal vegetables. As the popularity of the snack soared, many followed Balakrishnan’s lead and made their own versions of it, and the thattuvadai set soon made its way across the district.
Speaking to TNM, Bharana Bhaskar of the Salem Historical Society says, “Balakrishnan’s makeshift cart started drawing crowds. People began lining up, marking the arrival of this snack. Balakrishnan’s son then went onto set up Sri Rama Sakthi Garam Masala Pori Kadai, which primarily trades in thattuvadais, murrukus and puffed rice. People mainly took to this snack owing to its lightness. It serves as a quick appetizer between lunch and dinner.”
Bhaskar says that venturing out for a thattuvadai set is something of a people-watching exercise. “In the evenings, people come out of their homes and chat with neighbours. They watch the street and engage with other people. That was the way of a small town in those days. And the thattuvadai set serves as a way for people to do this.”
As this author can confirm, the thattuvadai set near Easwaran Koil tastes different from the one in Bazaar Street; while the thattuvadai set in Suramangalam is crispier, the one in Ponnamma Pettai has a stronger garlicky flavour.
“They created their own mango-ginger chutney, which remains a secret recipe. Similarly, many others cooked up their own versions of the chutney. While they will all happily share the ingredients with you, they will not share the combinations,” Bhaskar laughs.
True to his word, not one of the pushcart sellers divulges their trade secrets.
Pandi, one thattuvadai set seller, laughs, “You just take all the ingredients you see and mix it.” But what of the chutney, I persist. “See, everyone has their own. It’s not a big thing. You can figure it out once you try a few times and know what your customers like. I always ask my regular customers if they like it even though I have been making this for 18 years. If they tell me it is too spicy, I reduce the spice. We can’t always say we will get it right. But this is one dish that people love any day.”
Many of the popular carts have their pick of the lot from the vegetables that arrive from Mettupalayam. The freshness of the vegetables, they say, quickly incorporates the masala into the snack.
The makers of the thattuvadai set, however, have transitioned into making other items in a city that steadily taken the industrial route.
Says Adityan, a young seller, “There are a lot of workers from the factories who come late at night, so we finish with the thattuvadai set in the evening and start making parotta or something heavy for dinner because if we only make thattuvadai set our business will not run and they can’t feed their hunger either.”
The thattuvadai set is humbly priced between Rs 10 and 20.
On preserving the heritage of this snack, Bhaskar concludes, “This is a big part of Salem’s identity. We at the Salem Historical Society hope the government grants this a GI tag. This is part of the culture and lifestyle of Salem. The government should recognise that.”