Sunday, June 29, 2008

Snacks of the past

By Sandhya Ramachandran

Ever asked your father what he had after school on an average day? Snacks of the past were so different from what we have today. Here's a look at the absolutely different and simplistic kind of snacks that people had in the past…

There was neither pizza, nor any kurkure to answer those 'Hungry Kya?' questions. There was kodukka puli. Then there were those spicy mango slices; not to forget the annachi pazham thundu. Bakery products were just beginning and gave stiff competition to the oora-vechcha-maahani.

Every young boy and girl would have been given some annas of change to get themselves a slice of mango or pineapple from the fruit-seller near school to munch-on all the way home. The mangoes were unripe, cut and smeared with masala or just chilli powder for an added taste (just like the stuff you get today in the beachside). The pineapple slices were wrapped in newspaper-the then tissues! On reaching home, after a wash, they would have had a murukku or thattai- those savouries that we taste only on festivals and functions were an everyday treat for them. Sweets too were not uncommon. The paatti of the house usually took out a laddoo or athirasam as a treat. No, they never had his Frooti tetra-packs or a pack of Bingo.

In such times of simplicity, bakeries were just beginning to spring up in street corners- an anglicized development. There used to be sponge cakes, rusk, the soft bread and buns. Sooner, the cream cakes emerged. And so did Indianized versions like the masala bun came into the picture.

There were very little options when it came to drinks. It had to be fresh fruit juice, karumbu juice or the rose milk. In tall glasses, one could find push carts and stalls selling them-slaking the thirst of the passers-by. The advent of the goli-soda/ paneer-soda turned it into as an instant thirst-quencher. In its murky green bottle and with a goli/marble wobbling in its neck, this soda was supposed to give instant energy, especially to tired long-distance travelers.

I remember, as a kid, I used to be very fond of a local brand of ice-cream made in my native village. These ice-cream vendors used to arrive promptly at one's streets, as they made their rounds on their carts, in the village, yelling out "ice-creaaaammmmm"! My parents however, had just the ice golas- crushed ice pressed on to a stick and squirted with syrup. These Indian popsicles are still available in the market and relished.

My mother reminisces about the Kodukka Puli and the Oora-vechcha-Mahaani. The Kodukka Puli was a fruit of a tree. It resembled a tamarind and hung in bunches and swirls from the Kodi(branch) and hence the name. Some ladies in her village used to cut the maahani variety of mango into inch sized bits and with allow it to soak in water with a dash of salt and chilli powder. This Oora-vechcha-Mahaani used to be one of the hot-favourites amongst kids of her area, she recounts.

Many of the varieties of food available in the past have changed and many still continue to thrive. The change in eating habits and preferences has changed the market availability of these commodities. Be it Kodukka Puli or Kurkure- as long as it takes the tongue on one hell of a roller coaster ride in flavours, we don't see anybody complain.

This is to declare that the author and the organization do not support or work for the brands that are mentioned in this post.


Kurkure- a crispy snack with a sprinkle of salt, masala powder and chilli powder. Also a brand name
Bingo- a brand of chips
Frooti- a brand of mango drink

Hungry Kya?- Are you hungry?

kodukka puli- A type of vegetable that resembled a tamarind and had a bland taste.
annachi pazham- Pineapple fruit
thundu- slice/piece
oora-vechcha-maahani- Mahani is a variety of mangoes. In its raw form it is soaked in a salt-chilli powder mix.
Annas- currency unit formerly used in India, equal to 1/16 rupee
murukku – a savoury made with flour that is coil shaped.
Thattai- a flat savoury made with flour.
Paatti- grandmother
laddoo – a sweet, bright yellow in colour, that is rolled into ball-shapes.
athirasam- a flat type of sweets
karumbu- sugarcane
goli-soda/ paneer-soda- a soda available in green bottles with a marble wobbling in the neck.
ice golas- popsicles

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Watch Mittai… Panju Mittai… Soan Papdi…

…It happens only in India
By Sandhya Ramachandran

('It happens only in India' is a series of articles about endangered/extinct/existing elements of our tradition, things that are so unique to us and about a slice of everyday life in India. Be it the vibhuthi or the veshti, the madi-aachaaram or the Karva Chauth, the watch mittais or the Kodukka Puli- these are tales about everyday Indian objects/ occurrences/ practices the author is slowly gathering from her parents, grandparents and friends. Reason- 'It happens only in India')

"Long ago, there used to wander on the streets, sellers with a long stick, with sweet rolled on it. A twist here and a twirl later, for 5 paisa, one could get a duck, parrot, cat or any other shaped sweet-watch on your wrist! And whatever extra bit was left was lovingly stuck to your cheek by the sweet-wallah. The 'watch-mittai' was just sugar with added colours but it used to be such a rage when I was a kid," concludes my mother in a nostalgic tone.

Gone are the days of this innovative sweet. No one even knew what it was, until director Shankar showed it in his film Mudhalvan, making me break into the question of 'What is a watch-mittai?'

In the age of Ferrero Rochers and Dairy Milk, no child has ever sunk its teeth into a watch mittai! The simple pleasure of having a small watch-like sweet on your wrist and eating it off in glee has been absolutely replaced by foil-wrapped chocolates in swanky covers and myriad colours!

If the watch mittai has almost become extinct, leaving one or two rare existences, the panju-mittai has somehow held its fort. In bright yellow and shocking pink, these sweets are sold in the beaches, exhibitions and sometimes, there are panju-mittai making machines installed in weddings!

Then, the sugar-boiled mittais were in. Today, one still gets them at some shops (like the Ambika Appalam Depot chain of stores) in bright orange, lemon yellow and strawberry pink. The chooda mittais were the peppermints- resembling the camphor in colour and shape. Today, you get the authentic chooda mittais in packets of Rs.5. These mittais were bought from the roadside potti kadais. And then Nutrine chocolates arrived to rewrite things!

The jaggery-coconut cousin of the kadalaimittai- the kamarkattu has also somehow lived strong over the ages, and this iron-rich sweet is available in small and big stores in packets.
If there is one thing that still is sold in its nice-old way, it would be the soan papdi! We still see the soan papdi-wallah pushing his petromax lamp with a huge glass jar filled with the wispy soan padi- enticing in smell, melt-in-your-mouth taste and oh-so-sweet! In little newspaper cones, he still gives out soan from Rs.5 onwards. And in case these slightly-smoky tasting soan papdi are beneath your hygiene standards, there always is the modern packed version available in sweetmeat shops and stores.

From 5ps to today's costlier versions, all these roadside sweet items are getting newer clothing in factories and fancy marketing garbs. Pollution and hygiene were both not of any concern in the past and the mittais used to sell like hot property, being every kid's after- school snack!
Modern days have lesser cleanliness, more buzz and money to afford a better version of these delectables. Whether watch-mittai gets a new snazzy avatar, the kamarkattu replaces M&M's or the Panju mittai remains in its jataks pink colours, one sure does hope that these lip-smacking delicacies don't disappear from the face of the country!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Tirukkadaiyur: A story to die for...

By Vaishna Roy

I was in Tranquebar a few weeks ago. Incidentally, Tranquebar, the site of an old Danish fort, is a story in itself. And deserves its own post. But let me first tell you this quaint story.

A few kilometres from Tranquebar, I noticed great big hotels in the middle of what seemed like nothing more than a village. Curious, I checked with the cab driver, who told me that the place was called Tirukkadaiyur and that it had a temple where couples celebrated their shashtiapthapoorthi (a spouse's 60th birthday) or sadabhishekam (80th birthday). That's all he seemed to know.

So, I poked around a bit and found the sweetest story ever.

Once upon a time, many many eons ago, when the gods roamed between heaven and earth freely, making occasional forays into hell as well, there was a holy sage who did not have any children. He prayed to Shiva long and hard, and Shiva obligingly appeared before him. (As he markedly does not these days). He agreed to grant the sage an offspring but, as was the wont of gods those days, he made things a tad difficult. He asked the sage to choose between a son who would live a long and healthy life but would be a bit of an ass. Or a smart, intelligent boy who would live only till the age of 16.

The sage, having little patience for fools, chose the latter and accordingly Markandeya was born to him. The boy was perfect in all ways. He grew up an ardent devotee of Shiva, and worshipped the lingam devotedly.

The day Markandaya turned 16, Yama, the god of death, duly came calling but the boy ran away. He ran hard and fast to the Shiva lingam and threw himself around it. Hugging it hard, he refused to go away quietly with Yama. The disgusted Yama threw his noose around the boy, but it obviously landed around the lingam as well. Now, it was Shiva's turn to be furious. He emerged out of the lingam and kicked Yama with his left foot, trapping him under and refused to let go.

The defeat of death itself caused utter chaos in the cosmos. There cannot be life without death! Ultimately, after much worship and placation, Shiva agreed to let Yama go, provided he allowed Markandeya eternal life. The deal was duly signed.

The temple at Tirukkadaiyur celebrates this myth, and has a lingam that reportedly has the marks of a noose around it. And because it is the place where Death was temporarily defeated, it is the temple where people go to celebrate their 60th and 80th birthdays. As a thanksgiving for their longevity.

If I had known the story then, I would have made the detour to visit the temple. Unfortunately, I drove past in a hurry. Well, no matter. Tranquebar is always worth another visit, especially now that Neemrana has this gorgeous heritage resort there. And next time, I have the added attraction of this 11th century Chola temple at Tirukkadaiyur to draw me there.

Note: Tranquebar is 279 km south of Chennai, about a six-hour drive down a very pleasant NH45A. You reach this temple town just about 10 minutes short of Tranquebar.

Down the lanes of the past - Thinnais

By Sandhya Ramachandran

A long sweltering summer afternoon; blue skies brilliantly reflecting the sun’s blinding light and longer distances yet to be traversed for destination to come! What better way to rest the tired limbs of a tired body, than to sit and take a breather on the thinnai?!

Traditional South Indian houses made it mandatory to have a thinnai in front. A thinnai is a long narrow platform attached to the front of the house, overlooking the road and shaded by the roof that extends beyond the house. These platforms were leveled smooth and sometimes had stone slabs laid over them, for comfort.

As our culture declares ‘Athithee Deivo Bhava’-the guest is equivalent to the Lord above- this thinnai proved to be an older version of the modern-day’s porch, and was used to receive guests. Close relatives and friends paused at the thinnais to wash their feet and remove their sandals before entering within, while mere acquaintances would be seated there during the entire conversation; the thinnais thus masquerading as ante-chambers of sorts.

Business dealings and talks were often carried out in these spaces, where one could overhear market prices and intensive economics being worked out. Sometimes these thinnais were mini-office spaces in themselves, with a small table set there permanently- taking the role of an office desk.

Thinnais transformed into tuition rooms for kids with the addition of a blackboard propped against one end. Images of a tutor with a cane and a row of kids mechanically repeating verses and numbers are conjured at the very mention of it!

Travelers who needed a moment’s respite from the heat could make use of the thinnai’s cool shade. More often, the inmates left a paanai1 of water that would quench some passer-by’s parched throat. In the nights, one could frequently see these wayfarers who have long distances to go, sleeping in these free ‘guest spaces’. South Indian culture made sure that even strangers-who could not be let into the house due to fear, but still did not deserve to sleep on the roads-could find a comfortable shady spot to spend the night.

And in the mornings, with a cup of freshly brewed kaapi or chaaya in hand, the men folk used to sit in the cozy confines of their thinnais, sometimes with a newspaper, discussing politics, life and what not! In the evenings, the thinnai solely belonged to the womenfolk- their rhythmic chatter and spicy talk infusing life into the place. Kids reigned supreme in the lazy afternoons- playing around the pillars that held the roof over it- sitting and playing with their choppu2, chozhi3 or pallanguzhi4 while the older people snoozed away inside.

When there was a function in the family-be it happy or sad- these thinnais transformed into extra sitting spaces where excessive crowds could spill over.

During festivals, the thinnais are a beauty to behold! Strings of malligai5 and kanakambaram6 are hung from the eaves, oil lamps are lit in rows and intricate kolams7 are drawn at the entrance. They are decorated so beautifully that the whole house gets the splendour and air of a palace; with the otherwise modest thinnais being the majestic and luminous entrance to the fortress.

It is really sad to note that the modern day’s concrete jungle has depleted us of this very beautiful thing called ‘thinnais’. Our ancestors found this a way to respect people and treat them with care; but our own fear for strangers, rising crime rates and land value deems it impossible to build individual houses with thinnais anymore. Tot-lots, internet and telephone may have paved new avenues for our daily dose of social interaction, but this self-drawn security blanket has left us bereft of one simple joy- that personal touch of kindness to fellow humans in the journey of life!

1 pot
2 tiny vessels
3 shells
4 a traditional game of Tamil Nadu
5 jasmine flowers
6 bright orange flowers found in South India
7 designs using flour made on the floor near the entrances