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Monday, August 22, 2016

Vadai you want?

Very often, after lunch with friends, I would cruise through a certain street in my old neighborhood. A food truck would be parked there, dispensing freshly fried Indian snack food that, to me, was ridiculously cheap and oh, so delicious, especially with a cup of coffee. I would see fancy cars stopping by, often with chauffeurs popping down to pick up some snacks for themselves (or their bosses). A few different snacks were on offer, but my favourite was the vadai (or vade), a spicy, savory dhall fritter.

The truck was manned by an elderly Indian couple. They seemed to be a ubiquitous fixture in this established neighborhood, a reminder of the good old days amidst all the gentrification and obsession with expensive blended coffees. But one day the truck wasn’t there anymore. I thought maybe the couple was on a break, but it’s been a few months and they seemed to have vanished. I mourn their absence, not just for their addictive snacks, but also for a way of life that seems to be quickly disappearing as well.

I love all kinds of Indian food, in their regional variations and forms. Fiery southern Indian curries served with rice on banana leaves. Milder northern Indian fare with rotis and naans. And the condiments, oh the condiments. A veritable feast of different vegetables, sambals, chutneys, not forgetting those addictive pappadoms.

I’ve never attempted to cook any Indian food. Frankly, having to use all those herbs and spices, both fresh and dried, scare me. I live in a city with an Indian population substantial enough to boast Indian cuisine at practically every other street corner. If I so wanted,  I can have a breakfast of freshly made roti canai with curry, a banana leaf curry lunch with rice, and dinner of naan and totally different curries. Long ago, one of my bosses (he’s an accomplished cook!) advised me not to bother re-creating dishes which I could easily and affordably buy, especially when they would be far superior to anything that I could churn out in my kitchen.

So I don’t ever try to make the street food that I can purchase easily. The disappearance of my favourite vadai vendor caused me some consternation. I asked around but nobody seemed to know where the couple had gone to or if they had retired. I tried the vadai at other Indian restaurants and stalls but they were just not up to par.

I would salivate just thinking about having a vadai with my coffee. Hot, crunchy, savory, spicy. All these flavors and more in just one morsel of the Indian snack. Was I doomed to be vadai-less?

I did some research on the internet. Vadai was apparently popular among ancient Tamils as far back as 100 B.C.! Commonly made with legumes like dhall or chickpeas, and sometimes potato, the mixture is coarsely ground up and some vegetables and spices like onions, chillies and curry leaves are added, together with a load of other seasonings. The mixture is then shaped and deep-fried, resulting in vadai that has a crispy skin and fluffy center. There are all sorts of vadai, with regional variations and in different shapes, but I guess the kind that I like is known as vadai masala.

There weren’t that many recipes available online, and I had to roughly guess at the ingredients that were present in the vadai I used to savor. I’ve kind of approximated what would go into a recipe for vadai that I enjoy, and I’m sure the it can be further fine-tuned. But for now, until I can find another vadai stall or truck that serves the kind of snack I long for, this is good enough for me.

Admittedly, there are a lot of ingredients, but it's just a matter of organizing everything and making sure nothing is left out. In the end, I found it quite easy to make, and far less intimidating than I originally thought.

I molded the vadai mixture into smaller balls than I usually find being sold, because I prefer them being a bit more crispy. I tried to fry up the entire batch and then froze what I didn’t eat, to be re-heated in the oven. The re-heated vadai wasn’t bad, but of course, nothing beats enjoying it hot and fresh from the frying pan.

Vadai

Ingredients
1 cup dhall, soaked for about 8 hours and chopped roughly in the processor or blender
1 potato, boiled, peeled and mashed up
½ cup chopped onions
½ cup chopped coriander and curry leaves
1 tsp each of
fennel seed
mustard seed
chopped ginger
chopped garlic
green chilli
salt
garam masala
Pinch of chilli flakes or chilli powder
2 tabl rice flour
Vegetable oil for frying

Method
In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients.
Wet hands and mold mixture into balls, roughly the size of golf balls.
Flatten them slightly into discs, making sure to compact the disc as much as possible so it doesn't fall apart while frying
In a wok or frying pan, heat up oil and fry the vadai in batches until golden brown.
Drain on paper towels.

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