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Soft Inside, Crunchy Outside: How Crispy Vadai Became A Fave Snack

The last episode of Season 1 of Southern Slurp: Let’s taste the crunchy, piping hot vadai!

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4 min read

If I must tell you the story of the vadai, I must begin in ancient India. And then go backwards from there!

The year is 728 AD. That's 1,300 years ago. At the edge of what is today the city of Visakhapatnam, on top of a bald hill, a Buddhist monk sits facing the ocean.

That was about the time the Mahabalipuram temple was being built, in a distant shore near Madras – but that's another story.

The monk is reading the Susiddhikara Sutra. It is an extremely dense Buddhist scripture, full of esoteric mantras and practices. He reads with perfect posture and unwavering concentration, until he comes to Chapter 12.

The entire chapter is dedicated to the different types of food that is to be offered to the Gods.

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अपूप धना करम्भ सक्तु वटक तैल पायस शाकानि सुक्तानि वर्जयेत् II

He reads about the Vatakas, round cakes made of pulse and fried in oil or butter.

His stomach begins to rumble. The noise is lost in the sound of the ocean waves, crashing on the rocky shores below. But the pangs remain. He wonders about the thin soup and sparse vegetables that will be served for dinner. And then he sighs.

The Buddhist monk Shubhakarasimha is known for his supernatural powers in Buddhist and Chinese culture. Maybe he conjured some vatakas for himself. After all, they're unbeatable when you get the munchies. Vatakas...You know Vatakas, crispy round cakes that today are famously known as - Vadai!

Quo Vadai?! Masaal Vadai!

Interestingly, the Masala vadai tastes best with tea. I'm a die-hard coffee addict, and I have an entire episode on South Indian Filter Coffee as an ode to my undying love for the beverage. And yet, I must admit that the masala vadai (pronounce masaal vadai), is a dish best served with tea!

Until the onion bonda took over, most tea stalls across Chennai served the masaal vadai, and the raw banana bajji. Even today, some continue the tradition. I wouldn't recommend giving them a go anymore, but the aroma of the chana dal, the onion-garlic-dried chilli combination, fried in oil, is sure to tempt you!

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In a sense, the masaal vadai hearkens back to the ancient recipe of the Vatakas. From as early as the Rig Vedic age, urad dal was in vogue, especially in rituals, until there was a sudden taboo against it, at the beginning of the Christian era. A revamped version of the Vataka is described in the Manasollaasa, a treatise on all things that delight the mind, written in the 12th century. Urad dal, seasoned with asafoetida, salt and pepper was fried in butter or oil. The procedure is the same, the pulses have changed.

The Kannada author and poet Chamarasa writes about the Vataka in his magnum opus Prabhulingaleela. Even today, in Karnataka, the same recipe, but with onion and garlic added, exist in various forms and with different pulses as a base.

What's In a Name? The Different Avatars of The Humble Vataka

It was once known as the Katakarana, and was prepared with toor dal. And it is this recipe that is famously called the masaal vadai, or aama vadai in Tamil, and parippu vada in Malayalam. Shaped like a flying saucer, and with no hole in the centre, this one stands out for its coarse texture, crunch and unbelievable aroma.

But the vadai of the Tamils is undoubtedly, the medu vadai. Today its made of urad dal ground into a butter-like batter, spiced with pepper, asafoetida and salt, shaped into a round doughnut like disk with a hole in the centre, and fried to a light, golden brown.

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It's lighter than it looks. And when you bite into it, the crunch is satisfying. Inside, if well cooked, the white urad batter feels fluffy in the mouth, and melts before the fourth or fifth chew!

The Telugus call it Gaarelu. It was called Ghaarika in ancient India, and finds mention in the Matsya Purana, the oldest, most well preserved of the Puranas, which dates back to 1st Century BC!

Like today, it was then prepared with the batter of urad dal, then called maasha Dal. It had not one but five or seven holes and was fried in oil. The Ghaarika too was offered to the Gods, like mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures.

The term Vataka means, a ball. What is today doughnut shaped, was once a ball. In a sense, our ancestors ate the centre of the savory doughnut that we are eating today!
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And quite early on, South Indian cooks figured out that the vadais took on interesting properties, when dropped into liquids! In fact, dropping these vatakas into milk, churned buttermilk or plain curds were a thing even 2,000 years ago. Of course, the thayir vadai, or what is known as the Dahi Vada is one recipe that exists even today. In the literature of the Mahanubhava sect, from the early 12th century, we find reference to a recipe, in which sometimes chrurned curds and gruel are mixed and made into a thick consistency and spices like ginger and coriander leaves are mixed, with it.

And that, brings us to the end of a season of spice, history and culinary mysteries that I have been enriched by. We started off with the spicy, unbelievably simple rasam, and went around the idli, dosa, biriyani, onam sadhya and more! So until next season, should you feel hungry, do remember to binge on the full playlist of Southern Slurp, on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcats, Spotify and Jio Saavn.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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