Around the 4th century BCE, poetic sage Valmiki penned the Ramayana, the story of Rama, an epic that transpired during the fourth eon in Hindu chronology, about 880,000 years ago. When Rama’s wife Sita was kidnapped by the evil demon Ravana and taken to Lanka (what is now Sri Lanka), it was Hanuman, the monkey god, who gathered his troop of monkeys and flew Rama in the palm of his hands over the Indian Ocean to Lanka. Once there, in the heat of the battle, Hanuman wrapped a long piece of cloth along the length of his gargantuan tail and dipped it in kerosene. He lit fire to his tail and flew around, burning Lanka, to create a diversion that would enable Rama to save his beloved Sita.
In modern-day India, during the month of October, the 10-day festival of Dassera includes a tribute to Hanuman’s tail. Tamilian Brahmins do so by adorning a framed image of his tail with a wreath of savory, doughnut-shaped lentil fritters called vadaas that harbor coarsely cracked, pungent peppercorns, earthy ginger and aromatic curry leaves.
Making vadaa starts early with a job for everyone
At the crack of dawn on a chilly morning in October, my mother’s premier task was to bathe and wrap a clean 9-yard sari around her diminutive body before entering her very small and cluttered kitchen.
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Amma rested her left thigh on her armamanai, a plank of wood with a sharp blade at one end, to pry open the large pile of fresh banana leaves that my brother had purchased the previous evening for serving food for this special event to our family priests. She deftly cut in half a large leaf and sprinkled it with cold water. She removed the plate that covered the batter in the stainless steel stockpot, releasing the unmistakable citrus smell of the fresh karhi leaves, awakening all my senses. The crows were getting louder each time they flew by the window; I heard my stomach growl.
Amma placed a heaping tablespoon of batter on the lush banana leaf and spread it evenly to 3 inches in diameter. She made a hole in the center of the vadaa, similar to a doughnut’s. She dripped a drop of water in the hot oil to make sure it bounced off gently from the surface. When I asked her if it was ready, she nodded her head in affirmation.
She slipped the vadaa into the hot oil, and the scent of ginger root and black peppercorns filled the tiny kitchen. She quickly shaped more vadaas to cover the surface of the oil. “We need at least 30 vadaas,” Amma sighed, “for the maala [garland].” It seemed an impossible task, but within moments she had reached that goal. The vadaas had to be in increments of 30. When asked why, Akka, who was within earshot, mumbled, “That’s just the way it is.” Oh the vadaas looked so tempting — all evenly round and golden brown. I knew I could not eat any of them until the priest blessed the offering.
The armamanai took on the role of a pair of scissors for the long piece of string that would hold the vadaas together. I was in charge of stringing the perfect vadaas and tying the loose ends to make the garland. “What a horrible way to torture a poor hungry boy,” I mused out aloud, holding the garland high as I walked barefoot away from the kitchen toward the priest who sat in front of Hanuman’s framed portrait. His incessant chanting in Sanskrit was haunting and kept me mesmerized for the duration of the tribute. The word samarpayamee signified the end of the ritual and granted me permission to run to the kitchen to grab a vadaa fresh from the wok. “Heaven on earth,” I thought, as I sought to appease the Ravana in my belly.
Makes about 10 vadaas (3 inches in diameter and ½ inch thick)
1 cup urad dal (split and hulled black lentils), sorted
½ cup uncooked long-grain rice
2 to 3 dried red Thai, cayenne or serrano chilies
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped ginger root
3 to 4 fresh Thai, cayenne or serrano chilies
2 medium potatoes, peeled and shredded (1 cup)
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh karhi leaves
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon hing (asafetida)
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
1. In a medium bowl, place the dal and rice; cover the mixture with water by about 1 inch. With fingers, gently wash grains 10 to 20 seconds; drain. Repeat five to six times until the water in the bowl looks clear.
2. Add dried chilies. Cover with warm water and soak at room temperature at least one to two hours or overnight (about eight hours); drain.
3. In a food processor, grind the mixture with ginger root and fresh chilies until smooth. The batter will be fairly thick and feel slightly gritty.
4. Transfer the batter to a bowl and fold in the remaining ingredients. With a wooden spoon or spatula, beat the batter two to three minutes to incorporate air.
5. In a wok or 3-quart saucepan heat vegetable oil (about 2 to 3 inches deep) on medium heat until a thermometer inserted in the oil registers 350 F.
6. Generously grease the palms of your hands with oil. Place 2 tablespoons batter in one palm and with the fingers of your other hand make a round shape 3 inches in diameter and roughly ½-inch thick. The mixture will be very sticky, so use as much oil as necessary to shape vadaa. With your forefinger, bore a hole in the center of the shaped vadaa similar to a doughnut’s. Gently “peel” the vadaa from your palm and drop it in the hot oil.
7. Fry 5 to 7 minutes, turning once or twice, until richly golden brown.
8. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining batter. If shaping vadaas seem to be a problem, drop tablespoonfuls of batter in hot oil and fry until golden brown. No matter what the shape, they will taste the same.
Top photo: A vadaa fresh from the cooking oil. Credit: Raghavan Iyer