Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, celebrated over a period of five or six days is all about the victory or good over evil. Today is the last day of this celebration across the many states of India.
Last year was a revelation for me to experience Deepavali, as is it is known in the southern states of India.
The Sanskrit word ‘Dipavali’ from which Diwali has been derived denotes a row of diyas or oil lamps made from clay. I had an immersive experience in our Chennai-based community as diyas lit up the entrances and terraces of most homes. There were fresh floral decorations along with colourful Kolams, traditional floor designs drawn with coloured powders outside the entrances and light strings hung outside on the walls.
The first time we moved into our rented home in Chennai two years ago, was during Diwali.
What an auspicious start for our family to embark on a new journey in a new city! We have made wonderful friends since then and have celebrated all festive moments together.
I wanted to learn about the traditional regional dishes that are made at homes during Deepavali. I knocked on the door of Devi, one of my new-found friends and she willingly welcomed me into her sacred space - her home and kitchen.
My reason for approaching Devi was two-fold. She was born and raised in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Her parents hail from Andhra Pradesh and continue to uphold its traditions. On the other hand, Devi’s husband Subramanian is a Tamilian and hence she was familiar with the cuisines of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, both states being a part of southern India.
I requested for a recipe from each of the two states. Devi complied with these two - Poornam Boorelu, a sweet delicacy from Andhra Pradesh and a savoury called Kara Poli from Tamil Nadu.
I discovered that Devi had a fine taste and was an aesthete. I could say that from the way she kept her home. She was also a self-confessed perfectionist. A successful corporate executive in the past, Devi is now an enterprising homemaker. She was assertive and clear on how she wished to style the food that she was making.
“We will keep it simple, very traditional and place the Boorelu and Kara Poli on a banana leaf along with hot ghee. Fresh flowers and a small idol of Ganesh should be perfect, as the deity is worshipped for all new beginnings - our friendship, in this case,” Devi said, indulging me.
I was intrigued to learn that Devi was a reluctant cook. She had however, perfected her cooking skills because the philosophy that “the way to a man's heart is through his stomach” was ingrained in her by her father.
Andhra and Tamil cuisine
She learnt to cook Andhra food from her mother and Tamilian food from her mother-in-law. She also learnt to cook a few Keralite dishes from the latter because her husband Subramanian’s family has roots in the Palakkad region of Kerala, which is very close to the Tamil Nadu border. Devi learnt to cook her family’s favourite dishes with utmost devotion and taught them to her cook who hailed from Bihar, a state in the eastern part of India. Her personal favourites are however, Thai and Asian food.
It hardly surprised me that Devi could cook more than five varieties of sambar or lentil curry to perfection after her marriage, although she herself wasn’t very fond of it. “I like to see the smile on the face of my loved ones after they have eaten my cooking,” Devi confided. “Also, I like to give my 100 per cent in whatever I take up - whether it is cooking or anything else.”
I wanted a photo of Devi in her Deepavali attire for this story. On her insistence, I agreed to her deal. I too had to wear a saree along with her. I visited her on another day and as we posed in her manicured garden, I felt a sense of gratitude in my heart. A beautiful friendship had just begun between the two of us - bonded by food!
Poornam Boorelu: Sweet crispy vadas with a lentil filling sweetened with jaggery
The dish name is often shortened to Poornalu, which has its origin in Andhra Pradesh. It is an exotic dish made during festivals, weddings and on special occasions.
Talking more about Boorelu, Devi shared, “One of the main ingredients of Boorelu is the chana dal (gram) and hence the dish is a bit heavy. All dals have a typical smell, so we first wash the dal nicely and then soak, so that it cooks really well. In addition, we add ghee or clarified butter while cooking it in a pressure cooker - the ghee flavours the dal. In the villages of Andhra Pradesh, people use homemade cow or buffalo ghee. If ever we are traveling to Kodaikanal, I pick up artisanal ghee from Kodai Cheese, one of India’s oldest cheesemakers. Otherwise, I use a store bought ghee from a reputed brand.
“After the dal is cooked, it is mashed nicely so that it is creamy and melts in the mouth. Then we cook the mashed dal with jaggery. At first, it melts and then slowly the jaggery starts granulating. Finally, the mixture tightens up much like milk peda (fudge) or halwa. After we make balls with the mixture, we dip them in a batter just like medu vada and deep-fry each vada. Each family makes the batter in a different way.
“A lot of people use a fine grind of urad dal and raw rice in equal proportions in the batter. My mother uses only urad dal, while I use lesser proportion of raw rice than the urad dal. After grinding urad dal and raw rice, we add salt and sugar for flavouring in the coating. We don’t put salt while grinding, as it leaves a bit of moisture and makes the coating a bit soggy.”
Devi decided to share this particular recipe because Boorelu is not only a traditional and authentic dish from Andhra Pradesh, it can be easily made at home. “People in the cities indulge more in store bought sweets nowadays rather than make them at home. Most importantly, the recipe is very easy and doesn’t require too much sophistication in terms of ingredients or cooking skills. If I can make it at home, everybody should be able to make it.”
I savoured the freshly made Poornam Boorelu - altogether three of them! They were more like crispy vadas with a ghee laden soft puran or filling inside. These had to be eaten crispy, with a generous addition of ghee poured onto the crispy surface or into the gooey filling when a Boorelu had been gently pulled apart!
Kara Poli or Masala Poli, the traditional flat bread with a spicy potato filling
‘Ennai chetti vaikkavum’ is a phrase that is common in southern India, especially during festive times. What it means is that an oil pot should always be kept burning for the day in the kitchen. Accordingly, in Tamil Nadu, traditional savouries like Murukku, Thattai, Pakoda, types of Vadas and other deep fried snacks are popular during Deepavali. These are prepared much before the actual days of the festivities. Devi chose to share a savoury dish that wasn’t a typical palaharam; a term used for certain tiffins and fried snacks but could fit into the special Deepavali menu beautifully.
“Historically, the Dravidians were mainly engaged in agriculture. People worked in the fields during the day and ate cooked rice that they carried along with them. After a long day of toiling in the fields, they ate rice again in the evenings. It was only during the festival times, that they took some time out and made something different other than rice. The children got to taste fried snacks, nuts and non-rice dishes like Adhirasam, Attulu and others. Palaharam or snacks became special and traditionally, these were prepared collectively as a community, long before the actual festive day.”
The Kara Poli or Masala Poli was first made by Sri Krishna Sweets, now a reputed sweetshop worldwide (with a branch in Dubai too). I felt that this was a regional variant of Aloo Paratha, a flatbread made with refined flour and potato filling that is popular in northern India. Kara Poli was definitely spicier, especially with a sprinkling of the spicy gunpowder masala.
Devi explained, “Kara Poli is available at all the branches of Sri Krishna Sweets during the evenings. As I wanted to share a savoury recipe from Tamil Nadu, Kara Poli is a twist on the traditional Puran Poli that has a sweet coconut filling. It is very easy to make Kara Poli as most homes in southern India are familiar with the making of polis, which are similar to rotis or flatbreads as well as the Kara or spicy stuffing.”
- The writer is the author of the culinary travel blog ishitaunblogged.com. She is currently based in Chennai and has been a Dubai resident for two decades.
Share your favourite food stories with us at email@example.com