A Brief History of Fermented Snacks in South India

Whether you call it vadam, sandige or vadiyalu, these beloved, addictive rice crispies have long staked out a spot at the South Indian table, writes Vidya Balachander.

When I think of summer, my mind automatically rewinds to the years I spent in Ratlam, a hinterland town in Madhya Pradesh forgotten by time. An unrelenting heat beat down over Ratlam in April and May, wicking away moisture from the plants in our garden and sinking the adults in my maternal grandparents’ home into an exhausted stupor. Ironically, it is this parched season that I associate with some of my most fertile food memories.

The bone dry summers of my early childhood were perfect for an activity that remains, in my mind, indelibly linked to the brood of feisty women who raised me. On the most scorching days, my mother, grandmother and grandaunts would spread tarpaulin sheets on the terrace and lay out a spread of vadams or rice papads ─ made of a fermented and lightly cooked rice gruel ─ to dry. Moist and delicately flavoured with omapodi or carom seeds and a hint of green chilli, the vadams were delicious enough to be eaten raw. The few that survived our initial onslaught would take no more than half a day to dry, after which they would disappear into airtight jars. They would reappear unexpectedly at mealtimes, having puffed to twice their size and acquired a crisp buoyancy after a brief dalliance with hot oil.

Vadams may serve mainly as a textural counterpoint in a South Indian meal, but in many families like ours, the technique of vadam-making was handed down like an heirloom. It was an integral summer ritual, designed to make the most economical use of simple ingredients, using plentifully available sunshine as a preservation technique. To my young mind, it may have seemed like a cherished family secret, but vadams ­─ also known as sandige in Kannada and vadiyalu in Telugu ─ have been a part of recorded history since at least 1000 AD.

In his encyclopedic book, Indian Food: A Historical Companion, Dr K T Achaya quotes the Bhavissayattakaha, a 10th Century text that mentions vadams as an accompaniment in the royal meal of King Shrenika, the ruler of the ancient kingdom of Magadha. After describing a procession of courses, the text states: “Items such as parpata (papad) and vartaka (vadam) were common.”

Manathakkali Vathal. Image credit:  Awesome Cuisine .

Manathakkali Vathal. Image credit: Awesome Cuisine.

Sandige, made of a similar fermented rice gruel as vadams, find mention in the Lokopakara (or ‘for the benefit of the people’), one of the most expansive texts written in Kannada by the Jain poet Chavundaraya II, in 1025 AD. “A gruel made from rice, flavoured with cassia extract, ground barley, sesame seeds, urad dal, asafetida and turmeric powder were formed into balls that were dried in the sun and stored,” writes food historian Colleen Taylor Sen in Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, quoting references from the Lokopakara. “When deep-fried, they swelled into large balls called sandige, still a popular snack in Karnataka, especially during the rainy season.”

As both Achaya’s and Taylor Sen’s books make clear, vadams and sandige have historically featured as snacks or deep-fried, crunchy accompaniments to the main meal. However, it is likely that they evolved as a byproduct of the same ancient techniques of preservation that went into the making of pickles and preserves. In fact, by some accounts, vadams may have been a vegetarian alternative to salted meat and fish, which have been a part of South Indian cuisines since the Sangam period, which spanned from 3rd Century BC to 3rd Century AD.

“Being surrounded by the sea, salt in south India was a well-known commodity...” writes Achaya about the Sangam period. “[It] was, of course, used in cooking, and for salting and preserving dried meat and fish.” Over time, as regional cuisines became more distinct, salted and dried mutton cubes called aatu kari uppukandam and salted fish called karuvadu became an important part of the cuisine of Chettinad, located in the arid central part of Tamil Nadu. Since the Brahmin community eschewed meat, vegetarian vadams may have taken the place of these foods.

Uppukandam, karuvadu and vadams served the same basic purpose: to make use of excess. “When there was leftover rice, people did not throw it away,” said Sabita Radhakrishna, author of Aharam: Traditional Cuisine of Tamil Nadu. “They used to soak, grind,ferment, and season it. When they sun-dried this gruel, and later fried it, they discovered it actually tasted good.” The refinement of this basic technique has led to the creation of a variety of vadams, all made using rice, sago, a combination of both or variants such as puffed rice.

Some of these, such as killu vadam ─ ‘killu’ means pinch in Tamil ─ require no cooking or culinary equipment. Leftover cooked rice is ground and seasoned with salt, green chillies and asafoetida, and small pinches of this mixture are allowed to dry until crisp. Others, such as idiyappam vadam, called akki peni sandige in Karnataka, are made of a cooked rice and sago mixture, which is then extruded using a fine idiyappam or slightly thicker murukku mould.

Apart from vadams, the universe of vegetarian crispies also includes vathals, or salted and dried vegetables such as mor milagai (buttermilk chillies), kothavarangai (cluster beans), vendakkai (ladies finger), sundakkai (or turkey berries, slightly bitter, pea-sized berries that are believed to have medicinal properties) and manathakkali (or the juicy berries of the black nightshade, which are sometimes referred to as ‘fragrant tomatoes’). Although widely eaten as fried accompaniments to simple meals such as curd rice, vathals are especially favoured in Chettinad cuisine.

Mor Milagai or Yogurt chillies. Image credit: Blend with Spices

Mor Milagai or Yogurt chillies. Image credit: Blend with Spices

The Chettiars, a community of wealthy merchants, are believed to have carried vathals as vital sustenance on their long journeys to other countries. “When thevathal kuzhambu Chettiars travelled to South East Asia, they used to take vathals with them, fry them and eat them,” said Meenakshi Meiyappan, the octogenarian proprietor of The Bangala, a Chettinad mansion-turned-hotel in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu. “When they travelled by boat, vathals kept for a long time without being spoiled.” They were also cooked in complex and flavourful dishes such as vathal kuzhambu, a tangy, tamarind-laden gravy with an additional twist of flavour and texture from a variety of vathals.

Typically, vadams and vathals were made in large quantities and stored for one or two years. The investment was minimal: most of the vegetables were grown in home gardens or backyards. “If your garden had plenty of vegetables, you would make it into vathals,” said Meiyappan. But increasingly, the investment of time, money and effort required to make these foods ─ combined with the convenience of being able to buy them off the shelf ─ means that they are rarely made at home. “I never have a meal without vathals,” said Meiyappan. “But they are now expensive to make, buy and fry.”

A couple of months ago, in the peak of Colombo’s stifling summer, I was overcome by nostalgia for a simpler time. My chosen method to assuage this longing was to attempt making vadam at home. Before I started, I felt intimidated by the magnitude of my undertaking. But with my mother’s reassuring advice over the phone, I soaked four parts rice and one part sago overnight, ground the mixture the next day and allowed the batter to ferment overnight. I then cooked it over a low flame, seasoned it with salt and green chillies, and spread small spoonfuls of the warm, pliant dough on a plastic sheet to dry. As the irregular squiggles shrunk in the sun, I was filled with wonder. All these years, the tastes of my childhood had seemed irredeemably lost, as if I could never recreate them in my own kitchen. That day, they felt tactile ─ and well within reach.

Vidya Balachander is a freelance journalist currently based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Formerly the features editor of BBC Good Food's India edition, her writing has appeared in publications such as NPR's The Salt, Roads & Kingdoms, National Geographic Traveller, Mint Lounge and others.