Volume 4 | Issue 1 [May 2024]

DIGESTING SUMMERS IN MADRAS, THE 60s & 70s<br>Volume 4 | Issue 1 [May 2024]


—Karpagam Rajagopal

Volume 4 | Issue 1 [May 2024]

Text & Images – Karpagam Rajagopal

It was always the coconut trees that signaled it, but you had to pay attention. The oppressive heat and stifling torpor of a summer afternoon in Madras were enough to mute the incessant cawing of crows and still the wind into submission. But around 3 or 4 pm, you could sense the palm fronds stirring listlessly, just for a few seconds. It was what you waited for – a clear indication that the sea breeze was setting in, offering you the only respite you could find till the whole city exhaled its heat into the crepuscular sky.

This was the Madras of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, at the southern end of Marina Beach, dominated by a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in midstride, and a roundabout with a fountain in the middle of the traffic circle embellished by a lotus. Across from the beach were the staid, grey All India Radio building, and the sprawling grounds of the police headquarters. At regular intervals along the beachfront were statues of literary and cultural luminaries, culminating at the northern end by the “Triumph of Labour” statue. A few years later, the politician C. N. Annadurai’s final resting place and a lighthouse would redefine the northernmost and southernmost extremities of the beach respectively.

From the minute you woke up, it was as though the sun had sucker-punched you in the solar plexus. Perspiring pre-and post-shower was the norm in the glutinous humidity, and naps were impossible unless you slept on bare mosaic tile. Family visited for the summer from up north every summer, but even when it was just my grandparents, who shared their spacious home with my parents, aunts, and uncles, and cousins, it was rare for the kitchen to ever be closed for a meal. My grandparents’ religious observances and dietary restrictions came into play often, but for us cousins, restless and cranky with suppressed energy, 5 pm was zero hour, when we would be taken to Marina Beach, a short distance away. This outing was a daily liberation from the torment of the heat, and a break for the adults, I imagine.

Depending on the day, and level of adult supervision, we youngsters might be given free rein to buy some of the many snacks sold by vendors, which always tasted better eaten al fresco with a sprinkling of sand thrown in, and the ceaseless murmur of the waves in the background. And if my grandmother came along, a beach visit was guaranteed to be a lovely smorgasbord of treats, each purchased from a vendor who had been vetted for the quality of their offerings.

There were always a few food vendors at the beach who would prepare their wares on a four-wheeled metal cart with a 2 x 4 ft platform that served as a work surface. The one vendor who always got our business was a portly man with a beaming smile that could have served as a lighthouse. We just referred to him as ‘Gundan’, literally ‘stout man’. When I think of the dishes that he used to turn out in that space on a kerosene stove, I marvel at his efficiency and the amount of prep work he needed to have done. It would have been no small effort to get that cart onto the sand, since vendors were not allowed to use the road for parking their carts.

Kilimooku (parrot’s beak, Totapuri) mangoes, so called because of their hooked shape, cut into thin wedges with vertical slits to maximize surface area, dunked in a mixture of salt and chilli powder and served on a piece of torn newspaper or magazine, were the optimal balance of crunch, tart, sweet, heat, and salt. One could eat them in tiny bites to relish every piece, or the whole obligingly flexible slice could be curled and popped in the mouth. They were also the least expensive, and an easy ask. So were shelled peanuts, ingeniously roasted on a bed of sand in an iron wok. The perforated ladle used to serve them sieved out the sand, so all you got were toasty warm peanuts in a cone made of recycled paper.

Young boys, likely helping out parents by doing their bit to earn money, would carry tall rectangular metal canisters with a handle in the lid, yelling “Thenga maanga pattani sundal.” A sundal/chundal is a delectable dish. It is low-fat, high-protein, and the perfect snack, and usually served in a paper cone. Lentils/legumes, soaked and boiled, tempered with mustard seeds, grated coconut, curry leaves, salt, hing, and chopped tart mango. And it is delicious anytime, anywhere. Perfect flavor and texture counterparts to the sundal were the thattais and murukkus that these young men sold. Murukku (meaning ‘twist’ in Tamil) is a crunchy deep-fried snack shaped like concentric rings, made from rice flour, with a smattering of cumin seeds. Thattai is a cracker, made from rice and lentil flour, with added spices, hand-shaped into little circles and deep-fried.

We had family in Bombay, and were often invited to visit so that we could experience the legendary delights of Chowpatty Beach. Compared to the high-rises and frenetic pace of Bombay life, Madras was still a sedate city. But a mere car ride away, we could have the exact same treats without the travail of travel. For someone whose culinary experiences extended to the corner shop where puffed rice, peanuts, and roasted gram were piled into heaps in wicker baskets, this sounded unimaginably exotic and inviting.

Items like bhel poori – new to the tongue with their delectable flavors, crisp puffed rice gently sagging as it absorbed the flavors of mint and tamarind, the fluffy boiled potatoes, the crunchy fresh chopped onions and coriander, the little chunks of tomato offering a subtle switch in texture, the crispy, thin sev noodles and chunks of crackly pooris – were served in a humble ‘dhonnai’ – a cup made of dried water lily leaves artfully held together with pieces of coconut twigs. Eaten with one’s fingers, the fully recyclable packaging could be disposed of blithely while one licked one’s fingers and enjoyed the lingering, mouthwatering aroma.

Paani poori, another gustatory delight, was messier but oh, so worth it. At its finest, its consumption is a challenge – a sport combining dexterity, speed, and the joy of living in that moment. The almost scientific perforation of crispy miniature pooris (puffed fried bread), the careful apportioning of boiled potatoes and sprouted lentils, a soupcon of a thick, sweet tamarind chutney and just enough tangy, spicy flavored water poured into the pooris to float the contents, followed immediately by a swift journey to the oral portal, and the single-mouthful maneuver culminating in a mix of flavors and textures that bathe the taste buds and  raise the dish to a symphonic crescendo, repeated by the next, and the next, because what human could stop at just one?

For the more punctilious eater, in the absence of napkins and bibs, there were aloo tikkis – molded potato patties shaped into discs, kept warm on the periphery of a hot cast-iron skillet in the center of which bubbled ragda – a concoction of soft-cooked yellow peas in a scrumptious sauce.  A couple of tikkis, covered with dollops of ragda and drizzled with sweet-tangy tamarind sauce and sprinkled with fresh coriander made for perfect comfort food, a hug for the stomach of the less adventurous, and were a visual feast- the sunshine yellow tikkis, rich brown tamarind, and bright green coriander mimicking the verdant landscape.

If none of these gave one an adequate carbohydrate fix, there was always paav bhaaji – split white bread buns toasted in lashings of butter, topped with a spicy bhaaji made of a smorgasbord of boiled vegetables that politely stood by on the sidelines, and once invited, were chopped into inclusive submission in a gravy at the center of an intimidatingly large tawa. The buttery bun then served as firm infrastructure for the veggies, which were dressed with fresh chopped onion and coriander leaves, and a squirt of lime juice. This open-faced sandwich with its three strata is the perfect mirror for the emotions it generates with every mouthful- guilty carb/fat pleasure at the base, safely cooked nutrition in the middle, and a righteously crunchy salad topping.

There were few things that could compete with the aromatic tendrils of temptation radiating from a chaat vendor’s cart. But one of them was molaga bajji, batter-dipped, deep-fried chilli peppers. These chilli peppers did not pack a huge, spicy punch. They were seasonal, a paler shade of green than bell peppers, and not as hot as the needle-like peppers that proved their mettle every day in the Indian kitchen. These special peppers were six to nine inches long, with a boat-like curve. When they were dipped in chickpea flour batter and set adrift on a sea of oil, they would, in keeping with the nautical theme of their environs, bob along gently, coaxed and dunked till they were the perfect shade of golden, and quickly drained before being served on a sheet of paper. When you held the bajji by the stem and took the first bite, wisps of steam would emerge to tease you into eating the whole thing before it cooled down, leaving only a forlorn chilli stem between thumb and forefinger, and a sense of bafflement at this irreversible sleight of hand.

Seeking to battle the lingering heat of the bajjis (a half dozen would do nicely, thanks!), one might see the soft glow of coals, and a shower of sparks in the gloaming. Following it like a homing beacon would lead to the corn-seller’s cart. Whole ears of corn, with the husk pulled back into a comet tail would be impaled on a thin iron spit and placed in a bed of smoldering embers. The kernels would occasionally pop quietly, as if to demand minimal attention from the vendor as they charred to perfection. A wedge of fresh lime would be dunked into a mixture of salt and chilli powder and brushed over the piping-hot ear of corn, and then in a flash, it would be removed from the spit and the glory of a small task done to perfection would become evident with the first bite, until the ear was stripped clean.

With dinner complete, if one could manage dessert, there was usually a Kwality ice-cream cart nearby, with its offerings of vanilla, strawberry, and tutti frutti flavors. Each came in a cardboard cup, with a wooden spoon, and a cardboard lid with a tiny tab. The cups were for folks who could not impose control on rapidly melting ice cream, but could at least upend and consume the last few spoonfuls. Faster eaters could buy ice cream on a flat wooden stick – usually some fruit flavor or the most fancy- the chocobar – a vanilla core, covered with a layer of chocolate. Eating a bar ice cream slowly meant inevitable drips down the elbow, until the entire mass invariably slide off the stick and onto the sand, rendering the attempt an irretrievable, tragic failure. These were the default offerings until the ne plus ultra came along, a few years later- a Duet, either raspberry or mango flavored. This was an ice lolly, with a creamy core. One had to remember that these were flavors marketed to a populace that had no idea how a strawberry or raspberry tasted in its natural state. But did we care? Not at all, as this was the cherished way to end a meal.

If, for some reason, an ice cream cart had not been located on the beach, three options were still available after we got home later in the evening for a post-prandial treat. In a wonderfully Pavlovian way, two of them signaled their appearance by ringing a bell.

The first was the Buhari’s ice cream tricycle. Late in the evening, the ice/salt mix in square box used to transport the ice cream would have melted into a slush. Bobbing around in it, if we were lucky, would be aluminum tubes sealed with screw top lids. They contained kulfi- a sumptuous uniquely Indian ice cream made of milk reduced with sugar to which nuts (usually pistachios) and cardamom had been added. The vendor would unscrew a tube, neatly extricate the cone of kulfi and place it on a water lily leaf, cutting it lengthwise into two, and then making three cross cuts. Eight chunks of heaven would then vanish down hungry maws, desperate to cool down before another balmy night.

If the Buhari’s vendor (who usually hawked his wares by shouting ‘Ice cream Buhari’s’) was a no-show, all was not lost. Another cart with a more plaintive bell, and a glowing orb of a glass jar, backlit by a hurricane lantern would drift down the street, wraith-like. This was the soan papdi vendor pushing his cart. Soan papdi is a rich, cream-colored flaky, powdery Indian dessert with links to similar Iranian and Turkish desserts. It is made with sugar, gram flour, almond flavoring, and fat, ideally ghee. The vendor used a scoop or tongs to take it out of the oversize glass jar, and it felt like he was sharing part of this benign illumination in a tight paper cone, made on the spot was swirled to size perfectly so that one could reach the bottom of it without the cone unraveling. However, if one wanted to lick every iota of the soan papdi residue the newspaper would obligingly open, making it accessible.

When the beach was not an option, finding a vendor of palmyra palm fruit was one way to seek respite for a few minutes. The fruit, ice palm (nongu in Tamil) with the velvety taste of tender coconut and the texture of lichuphal (lychee) was the ideal natural coolant. Elaneer (tender coconut water) was another. After the delicious liquid was imbibed, the seller would obligingly cut it in half, and with a machete, cut off a small wedge of the outside to serve as a scoop. Some folks loved the crunchy, white, mature flesh, but for most of us, Eden was the tender pale, milky jelly.  And then there was the reliable and easily findable watermelon. My father would cut a hole in the top of the watermelon just large enough for a matthu- a churning tool. He would then proceed to mash the pink-crimson flesh into a chunky juice, pour it into a large bowl, add some salt, black pepper and lime juice to it, and serve it to us in tall glasses.

Mangoes were another seasonal treat – ripe Banganapalle mangoes were the one pleasure to be anticipated at lunch, with their thin edible skins and sweet, yellow flesh, and because you didn’t have to deal with annoying fibers between your teeth. Of all the mangoes easily available in the South, Malgova, Rumani and Neelam were the only other choices. Rumanis could cheat you with flashes of tart, even when they were perfectly ripe with a tantalizingly sun-kissed glow. Malgovas, with their small stone size, guaranteed you a delectable hint of honey or caramel. And Neelams were so incredibly sweet that they were guaranteed to harbor iridescent beetles in their flesh and seed, despite being blemish-free on the outside.

While the women of the house left the kitchen after lunch for the chance to get in a siesta under a ceiling fan desperate to prove its mettle, I was assigned to stand guard over another summer rite- supervision of the rice and sabudaana (sago) vadaams drying on plastic sheets and muslin cloths in the obliging sun. It is imperative that the batter for the vadaams be made early in the morning, and laid out on sheets so that the drying time can be maximized. The vadaams take a few days to dry, and then, when there is no trace of moisture left, they are peeled off the backing and stored away in large, airtight steel canisters. But before that happens, they need to be protected from marauding crows, ninja squirrels, and pre-teens with an appetite for anything flavorsome, whether raw or cooked.

Vadaams usually have reliably few ingredients- a carbohydrate (like rice flour or sabudaana), salt, (asafetida for digestion), a source of heat like chilli peppers, and buttermilk to give the vadaams a less sticky mouthfeel and more appetizing color. The real magic happens when they are laid out to dry. The circular rim and bottom dry out while the center which has a thin starchy film over it holds on to the moisture, and stays soft and gooey. The mix of textures has often made me wonder why anyone would bother to see the process through to its deep-fried end instead of just truncating it at the sun-dried phase.

I would sit on the back step, with the shimmering heat radiating off the concrete, long bamboo pole in hand to chase away critters, while blue heat spots danced in front of my eyes. As a small remuneration, I recall adjusting the rows so they were perfectly even. Any vadaams that strayed from the regimented alignment I had decreed were fair game to be eaten and savored, even if my pilfering was clearly evident by the starchy outlines of the disappeared victims.

When night fell, if the heat was still punitive, one could take a quick walk to Kalathy Stores- a tiny shop with a non-existent ambience and a surfeit of customers at all hours they were open. This was because Kalathy served cold rose milk- rose syrup mixed into milk, a concoction that was definitely more than the sum of its parts. With a gorgeous pink color, the perfect amount of sweet, and the cooling milk, it was a reward for having survived another hot summer day.

If, however, one felt a burning need to balance the sweet with the savory, just a stone’s throw away from Kalathy’s was redemption. Mathala Narayanan Street, just a few hundred yards long, could easily be found while blindfolded, just from the aroma of onion pakodas that wafted from it. A freshly made batch of these pakodas, with their crisp exterior and lip-smacking flavor could effortlessly revive hunger pangs that the summer heat had stifled.

Inevitably, such indulgences would lead to the aftermath of such gourmandism- an upset tummy. For those in my family, and many in my circle of friends, this meant buttermilk. Instantly cooling to the gastro-intestinal tract, and a very effective electrolyte, this was not a rich, sugary treat like lassi with a layer of gravitationally defiant malai cream floating on it.  Instead, it was homemade yogurt (dahi), full of beneficial probiotics, diluted to the extreme, salted, with a dash of asafetida. More demanding palates would demand a few crushed curry leaves, and a spritz of lime juice. Humble, yet highly effective, this ‘neer mor’ (watery buttermilk) would cure an errant stomach of bad behavior in conjunction with a teaspoon of raw fenugreek seeds.

A safe next step would be austere curd rice, thayir saadham, soft boiled rice mixed with probiotic yogurt (curds as we called it, not the lumpy blobs of cottage cheese, but a willing marriage of curds and whey, slightly tart, and wonderful for the stomach microbiome). A more decadent version of this ambrosia that served as a nutrition-rich delivery system involved yogurt, rice, salt, and a generous range of add-ins- grated cucumber, carrots, and mangoes, raisins, and a tempering of mustard seeds, cumin seeds, asafetida, curry leaves, and fresh coriander. One could feel one’s stomach settle after this meal, much like a recalcitrant, fussy, colicky baby finally gone down for a nap.

Then, secure in the confidence that a cure for excess was so close at hand, we would settle down for the night on the cool stone floor. Occasionally, we would sniff our palms, still redolent with the joys of so many humble foods honed to perfection for the climate and enjoyed with gusto, as we drifted off to sleep.


  1. Anne Alba

    Simply put and to sum up, you need to bring out your own cookery book!
    Extraordinary details of days gone by of tempting foods that have your mouth watering as you read!

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