I always know that all is well in my household whenever vadaams (various forms of rice, wheat, sago and potato crispies, to be fried and eaten) are being made in the summer. For a long time, due to her fragile health and multiple open heart surgeries, my mother had lost her mojo (and so had the entire family as a chain reaction) and we relied on store-bought things, whether it was tomato ketchup, mango jam, idli batter, various preserves and chutneys and podis (the dry chutneys). Technically, I knew how to make them, but it was always a community activity and it wouldn’t have been fun without my mother involved. So I didn’t. But every time we were at a lunch or dinner and hot crisp vadaams would be brought out as accompaniments, I thought wistfully about our vadaam days. I also noticed that we had grown apart slightly as a family when we stopped doing these things together.
This summer is different though. I now live close to my mother, and out of the blue, asked her one day, “Amma, why don’t we make vadaams anymore?” Her eyes lit up. “You want to?”, she asked. I said yes, and then we were at it almost at once, planning and getting things ready. The house seemed happier already with our little summer project.
Since there was no muscle power available (some of the vadaam variants involve stirring together kilos of batter, slow cooking them on fire and neither Amma nor I had the strength for it), we chose an elegant, yet easy option: The elaivadaam.
These are rice crispies, made by soaking and grinding rice to a fine paste, adding water to a dosa consistency. This is then delicately flavored with salt, heeng, black sesame seeds and a green chilli concentrate (made by grinding green chillies and straining the juice). The vadaams are then doled out like mini dosas on vadaam plates which are stacked up on a vadaam tray and steamed for 5-7 minutes.
Peeling and air drying the steamed vadaams is the next step. When we were kids, this was usually assigned to me (and still is) as I was the only one who could be trusted with these half-cooked beauties (they are delicious). Also, I was neat and organised and patient (things I am not much of now). My brother was usually the chief crow watcher, as the vadaams were then dried on our terrace and crows would make off with them in minutes. Till my mother realised that he was the biggest crow, and was happily trading them for marbles with his friends. She then adopted the tried and tested way to ward off the crows: tying a black cloth to a mast, creating a scarecrow of sorts.
As I peeled the vadaams and dried them in rows on a sheet, Amma kept steaming newer ones and handing them over to me, as if in assembly line. We chatted, got nostalgic, shared vadaam stories and before we knew it, the batter was over. The clock had moved four hours. And my mother and I had bonded like the old times. I suddenly felt cocooned in her warmth and confident in the knowledge that she would always have my back. The energy was infectious and Re wanted a task too, and he was appointed chief counter and duly noticed that one vadaam had gone missing (eaten by yours truly)
In a few hours of air-drying, the elaivadaams curl upwards, almost threatening to levitate. It reminded me of when babies start walking and then you have to watch their moves, for they are ready to wander off.
But there are still miles to go before you sleep. The next day, the vadaams have to prepare for a tougher journey, go out into the outside world, face the harshness of the sun, and become tough and firm, ready to face the world. It reminded me of what school is to children.
After all that work, and two days gone, the yield was a hundred vadaams. It might make one wonder, “Was it worth it for all the effort? Can you not just buy it off the shelf?” Perhaps you can. But for me, it was two days of intense conversation, laughs and giggles with my mother and my child. And that, as MasterCard would say, is ‘priceless’.
(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 4th May, 2015)