Birdwatching can stress your biochemistry. We woke before sunrise, had tea and biscuits, piled into cars and drove out in the countryside outside Hampi. We had packaged snacks in our backpacks, but you know how healthy packaged food usually is. We got to breakfast almost four hours after that tea.
It was a little shack by the road and I would have easily gone past it if it hadn’t been for the crowd of people waiting outside for their morning fix of starches and fats. The reason for this popularity was instantly clear once I peered into the shack. A lady was busy frying up chilis dipped into a batter. Next to it was an instrument which I would have identified as an idli steamer if it wasn’t for the fact that it was greasy. It turned out to be a paddu pan, and was used to make the delicious gullyappa paddu that you can see in the featured photo.
Across a narrow strip of floor, a man, presumably the cook’s husband, was doling out food to the madding crowd. Rural south India has a common culture when it comes to serving food. A plate or a table will have a strip of banana leaf over it: clean, biodegradable and single use renewable. The leaf will be put over a steel plate, long-lasting and therefore not resource hungry.
The gullyappa paddu is made out of a batter of rice and dal, slightly different in proportion from that used for dosas. The fermented batter is mixed with onions and herbs, put into an oiled paddu pan, and cooked closed, so that it steams and fries. It is delicious with the sambar and chutney that you see the man doling out. Some fried chili, some utthapam, lots of yoghurt, many cups of strong and sweet south Indian filter coffee followed. A late but great breakfast was the consensus.
We were delayed getting from Madurai to Rameswaram. The hotel called us and suggested that we have dinner on the way, since their restaurant would be closed by the time we reached. Sathiamoorthy knew just the right place. A market place had grown up at a crossing of highways outside Ramanathapuram, and it had this one special restaurant which was so busy that it had to be good.
We looked at the day’s menu written out on large whiteboards arranged around the restaurant. This was no ordinary short-order kitchen. It had a herbal soup “for stress”. Elsewhere there was a list of utthapas which they make. I’ve always wondered about the fiber content of Tamil food. A misplaced concern, at it turned out. The leaves in the utthapas probably make up a significant portion of it. They looked interesting, but it seems that we had arrived too late for this bit of interesting food. Unfortunately I don’t read Tamil, so I didn’t know what the Tamil words describe. There’s clearly enough traffic here from across the country that a large part of the menu is written in the Roman script.
Sathiamoorthy ordered a “meal”. We looked at the plate: three vegetables, four kinds of lentils, yogurt and a rice and milk sweet! This looked very good, but perhaps it was too large a meal at the end of a day in which we’d spent ten hours sitting in various forms of transport. We loved the presentation, with the banana leaf over the plate. The Family decided that she wanted something much smaller. The waiter rattled off a list of “tiffin items”, and she chose a familiar dosa. That’s the one in the featured photo.
I dithered. The waiter went off to place the other orders, and came back with Sathiamoorthy’s meal. I went for a north Indian style combination of south Indian elements: a porotta and mushroom 65. I have no idea what makes something 65; and it seems that even Wikipedia hedges its bets, although it traces the name back to Chicken 65. TV quiz shows have nailed their colours to one of these stories, and I suspect that it will become the real history by popular choice. “South Indian porotta”, the waiter warned. I nodded assent; I love this variety.The thick, flaky, hot spiral of porotta which you see in the photo above was everything I’d imagined. Stress was thing of the past.