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Features

Why Papad’s popularity in Indian cuisine won’t fade away

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Ramana Maharshi, whose 140th birth anniversary falls this year, was at 29 already a sadhu when his mother came to stay. Sri Ramana warned her not to expect help from him, yet one day she asked him to help make appalams, the South Indian papads which families prepared and dried during summers. He refused to interrupt his meditations, but perhaps to compensate composed a song linking papad-making to a spiritual journey.

The song Appalam ittup Para accurately describes the making of appalams, including local details like the use of the juice of pirandai, a cactus-like creeper (Cissus quadrangularis), and the seasoning of jeera, pepper and hing.

Just as the mind must pound away at the self, papad dough must be kneaded and “then with the rolling pin of Shanti, roll out on the platter of evenness”. Finally the self, like papads, must be “fired by the flames of wisdom’s enquiring… thus you can have the papad and eat it too!”

It is no surprise that papads are used for philosophy in India. They are a uniquely Indian product, made and consumed across nearly every region of the country, and appreciated abroad as an excellent Indian innovation. “It is not bad, even to a novice,” says Hobson-Jobson, the compendium of British Indian terms, in an entry for Popper Cake. In 2017 the Wiggles, an Australian children’s music group, released the Pappadum Song video, which consists of them just singing that one word, and crunching papads.

In 1915, when cash and commodities were collected to support Indian soldiers in the Great War, the Times India (ToI) reported “tins of papads” among the donations. In 1935, when the first air services from India were starting, ToI noted that consignments included pearls, mangoes, betel nuts and papads. Decades later, immediately after 9/11, when a panicked US banned air passengers bringing any food products, so many pickle and papad packets were discarded by Indian travellers that airports were reported to resemble grocery shops.

Some communities are particularly associated with papads. Sindhis famously eat papad anytime and with anything, and this can’t be unlinked from the fact that papads are one product that is easy to make in their arid, and now lost, homeland. When the writer Namita Devidayal married into a Sindhi family, an old aunt told her how in that austere era, a wedding baraat was greeted with just papad and sherbet: “The idea was that rich people should not be allowed to do what the poor man could not aford.”

Students are another type of community who have valued papads. As a student in London, Dr BR Ambedkar sustained late-night studies with papads cooked on his room heater. A friend explained how in her Mumbai hostel they used a hot iron to cook papads pressed between a towel. Some office-goers use the canteen microwave to make papads, even if this lacks the savour of slight charring that comes from an open flame.

Originally most papads were made with urad or other dal flours, but over time they have been made from every kind of starch, from rice to potatoes to tapioca and, now, of course, you can buy quinoa papads. Innovations like this tend to cover up the fact that some traditional varieties are becoming harder to find, like the strip-like Parsi sarias or the nests of fermented wheat noodles made in Maharashtra called kurdaya. While not flat like most papads, they serve the same role of providing a crunchy contrast to curries and rice.

In Theresa Devasahayam’s study
When We Eat What We Eat: Classifying Crispy Foods
in Malaysian Tamil Food, she argues that “the texture of crispy foods arouses emotions of play, pleasure and delight differently from other foods.” Because they are seen as fun rather than filling, they aren’t taken as seriously as other foods. This may be why the habit of making them at home has faded. Even orthodox households, which are always careful to make most of their food at home, were generally willing to buy papads made outside.

Today, it is women’s cooperatives like Lijjat that famously command this market, but there have always been communities who made them professionally, like the so-called Appala Chettis from Thrissur in Kerala who moved to Madurai district around 1950 and made it a centre for papad production. Professional papad-makers have driven innovations in ingredients and flavours, but they now risk being swamped by the money and marketing of snack-food giants that offer an array of crispy foods that don’t even need cooking.

Some restaurants like Bombay Canteen have tried showcasing papads, which is welcome, but sometimes it feels that the way they choose to do so, offering a papad and pickle platter as free welcome dish, reinforces the marginal status of papads. Perhaps we need to rediscover the traditional dishes made with papads like the Paporer Dalna made in Bengal where papads are cooked with potatoes, or similar Gujarati dishes made by treating raw papads like a kind of pasta, to eat in soupy, spicy stews.

There are dishes made with crumbled papads, like pappadam pazham, a delectable mash of bananas, sugar, rice and ghee topped with crisp-fried papad crumbs, or the paranthas stuffed with crumbled papads you can find in Old Delhi. Skilled cooks can shape papads into cups or rolls that are stuffed with spicy fillings. We may no longer have the time (or the terraces) to make papads in summer, but this should not mean ignoring the many varieties and values of such an intrinsically Indian ingredient.

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