Tuesday, May 5, 2009

My Pappadam Told Me...

Well, how hard could it be, really.

Those who know us know that we've never been ones to shy away from a challenge. In just over 9 years of marriage, we've had two children, renovated houses, built recording studios, started a couple of businesses, opened a bed and breakfast, opened a retail store, and most recently, moved to India to study the food and culture. So when our friends Chitra and Gee casually suggested that we document the making of a Sadya, or Keralan traditional feast meal, we barely flinched. It's just a dinner, right? Pffffft.....Then we had a production meeting with Chitra to plan the filming, and it was then that the true scope of the endeavour was revealed. When I looked at my Excel spreadsheet of dishes and planned shooting days at the end of our two hour discussion, it became apparent that this was going to be anything but casual.

A Sadya, the Malayalam word for "feast", is a traditional Keralan vegetarian meal served up for special occasions only. It's a very fussy and involved meal to prepare, and there are some fairly strict rules and customs for it's correct preparation. A full-on Sadya meal has 24 separate dishes in it, and the order on which they appear on the banana leaf plate, and the order in which they are consumed are strictly observed. There are Ayurvedic principles involved, and therefore many do's and don'ts that may seem a little bizarre to the uninitiated. For example, onions and garlic are typically not used in the preparation of dishes for a Sadya, as they are said to "arouse the passions", and therefore interfere with a properly meditative mindset. This explains my fervent love of onions and garlic, and therefore my personal tendency to dwell in the lowest states of consciousness. Woof!

So the next few posts will be concerned with the preparation of the Sadya. Chitra, our talented chef friend, generously volunteered to prepare this feast for us over a period of several days. Our work needed to be spread out over time, because even with a large catering team, the sheer amount of work involved in preparation can take at least a couple of days. We've actually been able to film a couple of these large teams at work, and it's a pretty amazing sight to see at least a dozen people pull an all-day and then all-night shift in order to prepare these dishes, some of which are incredibly involved, for groups of people that can number as high as six or seven hundred hungry diners.

We decided to start with the thing that keeps the longest: pappadam. Pappadam are those crunchy crisp circular crackers either made from urad dal, or tapioca flour, water and salt. Some are made by mixing in black pepper, or cumin, or green chili, but the ones for Sadya are intentionally left plain. The flat, dried crackers are then fried very briefly in oil, and served at room temperature. Of course, for a special feast, we don't just trundle off to the grocery store or market and pick up something pre-made off the shelf now, do we? That would be the cultural equivalent of serving Kraft Dinner at your wedding dinner (hi Uncle Cletus...). It's just not done. So once again, we relied on a contact of Chitra's to get the real inside poop on how these vitally important snacks are made by hand.

Chitra and Gee picked us up in their delightfully air-conditioned Honda CR-V, and drove us and all of our camera and audio gear to a nice house, much like the one we have been renting, in another part of Kaloor. It was only a few miles away, but navigating through the labyrinthine streets and finding the proper address was a challenge, even for Gee. We were welcomed into the home by Chitra's lady friend and her son. After unpacking the camera, strapping on the audio mixer, and affixing the microphones to Chitra and Laurel, all of us were led upstairs to an essentially empty room where the pappadams were made. The floor was comprised of spotlessly clean 2 foot square marble (or vitrified ceramic) tiles. There was only a stainless steel bowl with a large lump of batter in it, and a 4x6 foot plastic sheet. We all got down on the floor with her, and watched as she repeatedly grabbed a small lump of batter and placed it on a semi-stiff piece of plastic that had been lightly oiled. Then another piece of plastic was placed on top of that. Next, she deftly tapped the top piece of plastic with a circular stone to press the batter out into a perfect circle. A quick peel of the top layer of plastic, and she then moved the fresh disc over the large plastic sheet by her side, inverted it, and peeled away the last bit of plastic.

The window was open, and the sounds of drums and horns from the temple festival going on a couple of doors away drifted in. Oblivious to the nearby costumed elephants and feverish drummers, she repeated this batter ballet with practiced ease. Her constant smile told us of the obvious pride that she took in what she was doing. Soon, the large plastic sheet was filled with fresh pappadam. The freshly laden sheet was then moved out into the hot sun to dry. Chitra told us that she makes about 250 of these pappadam a day, every day. She only stops when the rainy season comes, and it becomes impossible to dry them outside. It was her only source of income. Laurel tried her hand at making one, and it soon became obvious that doing it quickly and correctly took a certain amount of practice!

After this, we were led back downstairs for some coffee and a few samples of her handiwork. The pappadam were quickly fried in oil, and served up piping hot. They were so delicious, that we bought several bundles to take home with us. So part one of the Sadya meal was pretty much in the bag. As we climbed back in the Honda for the drive back home, I could not help but marvel at this woman's work. The sheer industriousness of it struck me. It was so very impressive for us to see her making her living in such an ingenious, dignified, and self-sufficient way. I could not help but wonder. Faced with the need to support ourselves and our families alone, how many of us would rise to the challenge as she had done?

How hard would it be?


~Carole said...

Cue proverbial lightbulb: so *that's* why my husband loves onions & garlic so much!

Very interesting narrative on pappadam and the lovely woman who made them. The photos are great, too.

jcree said...

I don't have time to read this just yet, but I nearly spit my tea out on the table when I read the title to this particular blog.

I'll be humming that tune all day.

Rob Bailey said...

Thanks Carole! Nice to see that your hubby likes garlic and onions for all the right reasons. Thanks for the lovely note.

And Julie, check out www. hintsfromeheloise.com for advice on how to remove tea stains!

Lotsa love/Rob