Sathya Ramaganapathy is a Bangalore-based writer. Armed with the ulnar nerve and a long memory, especially for inconsequential things and old grievances, she conjures up what she believes are brilliantly funny and incisive pieces on life in general. She has very few friends and family left. She is the author of three children’s books, and the parenting humour blog www.thingsmykidssay.in (link). She was a finalist in the Open Road Review Short Story Prize 2015. Her work has appeared in literary magazines like Antiserious, Culturama, Scroll, The Criterion, and The Madras Mag. She is awaiting the publishing of her debut humour book.
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The Gunpowder Conspiracy
The cold war has lasted two days. At least on my side it has. I am, after all, a master of the silent treatment. I cannot, will not, let it go.
Not after what he did.
What did he do this time, you ask?
He asked for gunpowder, that’s what.
Gunpowder. While not strictly combustible, it can still launch a thousand conflicts. At least in my family it does.
Visit any Tamilian home with a working kitchen, the one item you are sure to find is milagai podi. Literally translated, milagai means chilli and podi means powder, and rolling off the tongue together, refers to the condiment that is served as an accompaniment to the popular tiffin items of idli and dosa. Place a spoonful of milagai podi on your plate. Use your index finger to make a small well in the centre of the mound. Carefully drizzle some sesame oil into the well, taking care not to let it leak out. Swirl and mix the podi in the oil and… voila!
Slightly coarse, spicy — nay fiery — and a different shade of red depending on its lineage, milagai podi is known by several names, such as chutney powder, idli podi and, sometimes, just podi. Its true nature, however, is celebrated in its most famous sobriquet: Gunpowder, for the punch it packs. And in my family, the podi lives up to its explosive name by being the trigger for many a skirmish.
There was always milagai podi in my mother’s house. Growing up, I heard a variation of this conversation almost every other day:
“Where’s the podi?” appa would ask.
“Why do you need podi when I have made chutney (or sambar or khichadi)?” amma would reply exasperatedly.
My father, in his own unassuming way, would stick to his, err, guns, and insist on being served the podi.
“Your father would prefer it if this were a restaurant and I served multiple side items for every dish,” amma would grumble to me.
I often wondered what the fuss was about. It’s just podi, for god’s sake, let the man have it!
Fast forward to a few years later. This time, in my house:
“Do we have milagai podi?” asks the husband.
“Podi? Why do you need podi when I have made chutney (or sambar or khichadi as the case may be)?”
“Because I like it!” He too sticks to his guns. “Besides, the chutney (or sambar or khichadi) is not spicy enough.”
“That’s because we have kids in the house and they can’t eat very spicy food.”
“That’s why I’m asking for podi!”
“You would prefer it if this were a restaurant and I could serve three types of chutneys and sambar with idli and dosa,” I grumble.
“Yes. And don’t forget the vadai,” he shoots back.
To appreciate why the podi is such a contentious matter, one has to go back to the very reason it exists. Milagai podi is considered a substitute for chutneys and sambar. The key word here is substitute. Say you’re feeling tired or lazy and not in the mood to make a chutney or sambar to go with your idli or dosa. What do you do? You fall back upon the good old podi, which you must always have in stock. Twist and open the lid of the podi jar, set out the sesame oil and there you have it, an instant side dish for your tiffin. Or, say you have an unexpected guest one evening and your chutney or sambar meant for four will not stretch for five. What do you do? Once again, you fall back on the podi. Not only is your problem solved instantly, you have a new treat to offer your guest.
However, when your family insists on being served milagai podi each time you serve tiffin, you no longer have a go-to-in-case-of-an-emergency option. The problem is, your family treats it like ketchup whereas you would rather they see it as an exotic dip.
What is it with the men in my family? To me, it seems there is conspiracy amongst them. My father, my husband, my brother, my father-in-law. They all ask for podi. Nay, insist on it. It matters not that one might have slaved over some interesting, not to mention healthier, side dish to serve with the tiffin. My brother, in fact, avoids the other side dishes altogether to feast exclusively on podi with dosa. Alas, my treacherous younger daughter too has decided to join the fray. Last night at dinner, as I tried serving sambar with her dosa, she piped up, “I don’t like sambar so much. I really like the podi that grandma sends us. Can you please serve me some?”
My mother’s famous milagai podi. Every household has its own secret Mom’s Recipe handed down the generations. I’m sorry to say I’m unable to locate the small collection of recipes my mother handed me many years ago when I was a new bride. Mind you, I have not lost it. I’m merely unable to pinpoint its exact location at this point of time. Back then, I believed cooking was not my thing. Besides, there were ready-made podis easily available in the market. So why bother?
The husband and I survived happily (at least I thought we were happy) on the store-bought milagai podi for many years. And then my parents moved to the same city. Suddenly, the husband had easy access to the homemade version that my mother always has in stock. Whenever we visited them, he devoured the podi by the spoonful. He spoke enthusiastically about how much he liked the coarseness and crunch of the podi she made. He even enquired about garlic and other ingredients that she used. My mother, reticent when it comes to her trademark recipes, melted and actually answered. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what she said, not even one of the ingredients.
To cut a long story short, my mother decided that no son-in-law of hers would ever want for homemade milagai podi. And so began a new ritual: Once every two or three weeks, a freshly prepared stock of podi arrives, the heady aroma of roasted chillies and fresh garlic wafting through my kitchen.
Imported podi. That’s how the husband refers to it. Imported all the way across town from my mother’s house. We always have a full jar at home. On the rare occasion that we run out, we fall back on the store-bought one I keep as reserve. But it’s not too long before fresh stock arrives again.
And so it has continued, until recently, when my mother decided to go on a long holiday and we ran out of podi. In a fit of madness, I decided I would make it myself. How hard could it be? I could look up the recipe on the internet.
“Why don’t you call and ask your mother how to make it,” advises the husband.
“Ask my mother for the recipe? After having sneered at it all these years?” I ask, incredulous.
“She is your mother,” he says.
“All the more reason,” I retort.
“You do realise that you are no longer a teenager trying to prove a point to your mother?”
I may be mother to a teenager now, but that does not mean I’m too old to prove a point to my mother! Men obviously have no clue about the delicate struggle for power that is the mother-daughter relationship.
Besides, how could I confess to her that I could not find the recipes she gave me? Her precious, self-taught, very-much-in-demand recipes that she bequeathed to me (aka ungrateful daughter), instead of giving them to the many family members and friends who have repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) tried to coax them from her. I dare not reveal the truth.
So I turn to Google. I start searching for recipes and tumble down a rabbit hole. All ye North Indians out there, please note: just searching for “South Indian podi” does not cut it. First, you have to rule out all the other states in the south. No Andhra, Kerala or Karnataka style podi. (In case you were wondering, Google is yet to catch up to the new state Telangana.)
For my family, nothing but the authentic Tamil recipe will do. But here too, I face a big dilemma: Every region in Tamil Nadu seems to have its own recipes! Chettinad style, Palakkad style, Tirunelveli style, Chennai style… And each style has its own set of ingredients, proportions and methods! With coconut, without coconut, with sesame seeds, without sesame seeds, dry roasted, oil roasted, mixer ground, hand pounded, all at once, one by one – the permutations and combinations are endless. What’s more, every recipe reveals a different secret ingredient dating back to their grandmother and great grandmother. Perhaps I should have called my mother after all.
I finally pick a recipe, from a region that is close to my hometown. The ingredients and method are simple. Urad dal, channa dal, red chillies, sesame seeds, asafoetida and salt to taste. Dry roast the ingredients separately. Use the mixer to grind the dals to a coarse mix and the remaining items to a fine powder. Mix well. I add my mother’s trademark garlic (not mentioned in the recipe) as a final touch.
That evening at dinner, the husband is surprised. In the seventeen years that we have been married, I have just about got the hang of basic traditional dishes. Very rarely have I ventured into anything elaborate or exotic.
“You made this?”
“So, what do you think?” I ask eagerly. I’m flushed with the pride of a new bride who thinks she has impressed her in-laws.
“It’s nice,” he says.
“Better than the store-bought one?” I’m obviously fishing for compliments.
“Does it taste like my mother’s podi?”
“Hmm. Your mother’s podi is a little darker in colour, isn’t it?”
“Maybe it’s because of the red chilli variant she uses?”
“So what do you think of the taste? Do you like it?”
“Did you add garlic?” he asks, evading the question.
“Your mother’s podi always has that sharp pungent tang of garlic.”
“Her podi is maybe a little spicier…”
I grit my teeth.
“And coarser too,” he adds.
I remain silent.
“But this is better than the store-bought one,” he says.
Then, catching sight of my face, hastily adds, “This is definitely good. Way better than the store-bought one.”
That’s it. No more podi-making for me! I shall go back to baking cookies and cakes for my enthusiastic and ever-admiring daughters.
As for the podi, my mother returned from her holiday a month later and the imported podi started arriving at my doorstep once again.
It’s just podi, for god’s sake, let the man have it!
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