It is 3.30 pm. Shreya N assembles rice flour, grated coconut and cumin, then puts water to boil. As she mixes the ingredients, she thinks about her grandmother, and how she too would go through the same routine putting together her piece de resistance, the ‘star appam’. “It was indeed the star at the tea table whenever it was made,” she says. Decades later, it is back on the dining table.
The current lockdown to tackle COVID-19 has brought the resurgence of the 4 o’clock tea, a ritual lost over the past few decades. Kitchens now stir to life in the afternoon, as people call their grandmothers, mothers and aunts for old family recipes. The dining table is the heart of the house once more.
While teatime has been hijacked over the years by cappuccinos and cookies, till a few decades ago, home cooks experimented with local, and often home-grown, ingredients to whip up inventive snacks.
In Kerala for example, besides the ubiquitous pazhampori (banana fritters), unniappam and parippu (lentil) vada, most families have their own snack recipes. Rahul Prasad, from Kozhikode, says the ‘muttayappam’ (a savoury pancake) his mother makes is a unique combination of rice flour, eggs, coconut, shallots and green chillies, which he hasn’t eaten anywhere else.
Love letter (Elanji)
- Sugar — 1/2 cup
- Coconut — 1 cup
- Maida — 1 1/2 cup
- Water — as required
- Mix the maida with water to make a batter (thin dosa batter consistency). Pour it just as you would a dosa on a heated pan. As it gets cooked, spread coconut and sugar mix and intead of flipping the dosa, roll it. Take off pan and serve hot.
The building blocks are often similar. A Malayali snack worth its salt must have coconut, jaggery and banana or jackfruit, says Sunitha Menon from Kanjiramattom. She’s making unnakkaya for tea, a delicious fusion of banana, coconut, sugar and ghee. The ‘love letter’ (also known as elanji) has also resurfaced: this is a wrap filled with sweet, grated coconut. Then there are the ‘madhura puffs’ (also known as pugada), a fried snack filled with grated coconut and sugar, popular in North Kerala in the 90s.
Meanwhile, Shobhana Subramanian from Chennai experimented with the very traditional, yet much-loved ‘ribbon pakoda’. She sought help from her mother-in-law, who is an expert at in the dish. “While My mother-in-law She made the dough and I pressed it in the mould. The pakodas turned out really well — crispy and delicious,” says Shobhana. To get great results, she Shobhana says, the besan, rice flour and roasted and powdered urad dal should be perfect. “The mix is then seasoned with salt, chilli powder and asafoetida, and kneaded with a generous quantity of butter and heated oil.” Ideally had with a cup of filter coffee, this pakoda is an ever-green snack.
Chana Dal Bhabra / Babra served with tomato ketchup, popular food from Bihar / Bhojpur of India
Ragini Kumar from Bihar is rediscovering two of the State’s favourite teatime snacks, spongy rosogullas and samosas stuffed with a spicy potato mash. Over the phone, from her home in Patna, she talks about how evening tea was a ceremony in Bihari families. Stating that while the rosogullas and samosas were staples, everyday, “There was always an additional namkeen, (a savoury preparation) or a sweetmeat such as ‘thekua’, a deep-fried biscuit made of flour, with flower motifs impressed on it, and ‘khaja’, a deep-fried flaky pastry.” The namkeens could be ‘ghugni’, stir-fried green gram or ‘nimki‘, deep-fried diamond-shaped short eats.
Winter evenings were for ‘hara channa’ fritters, made with dried green chick peas, rice flour batter and onions, the deep-fried snack is still a popular favourite. “The water chestnut halwa, no longer common, used to be made until a few decades ago. Nowadays it is had during a fast,” says Ragini.
The tea is also important, she adds, saying that “the flavour, colour and body of tea is an important conversation point,” she says. Tea time was also a time when families dropped in to visit, hence a large spread was always ready. Ragini says the lockdown has given her ample time to discuss these recipes with family members. “One thing we all plan to have post lockdown when we meet is the puffed rice-peanut mix, at least in memory of the lockdown.”
At Sweena Karnani’s home in Visakhapatnam, the teatime has become all about scarfing down traditional Marwari snacks. Food certainly comforts, she says, adding that her menu for the day is the Marwari traditional ‘ajwain pakoda chaat’, ‘pyaaz ki kachori’ and ‘gudd ki papdi’. Plucking fresh ajwain leaves from her kitchen garden, Sweena combines it with spinach to coat it with a batter of gram flour and spices. “This is then deep fried and served with yoghurt and tamarind chutney. This ajwain pakoda is a famous snack of Varanasi,” she adds.
Late afternoons are filled with the sizzle of ‘punugulus’ wobbling in the frying pan at Jhansi Tripuraneni’s kitchen. This Telugu short eat is served with crimson ginger chutney for that spicy twist. “Piping hot punugulus make for a perfect chai-time snack,” adds Jhansi. Traditionally made with a batter of rice flour and black gram, Jhansi says these can be tried with leftover dosa batter too.
Among all the snacks Instagrammer Radhika Raja has tried out during the lockdown, the ‘gunta punugulu’ — “made with less oil, and so healthier” — is her favourite. “These are made with less oil and are therefore healthier. The lockdown has given me plenty of time to make different versions of this traditional snack,” says Radhika. She prepares it by mixing boiled sweet corn, grated carrot, green chillies in dosa batter, sprinkled with jeera (cumin), salt and pepper. The batter is poured in the iron cast skillet to be cooked over a small flame till the punugulus turn golden brown.
Sreeparna Sarkar relives her childhood in Kolkata through the Bengali snacks she has been trying out every day. The highlight of her experiments has been the ‘korai sutir kochuri’, a deep-fried kachori, stuffed with mildly spiced, asafoetida-infused green peas. “Nobody can make this as good as mom,” she sighs, but is quick to add: “but thankfully there is FaceTime!”
The Bengali in her loves all things deep-fried, which she has been making with her mother’s help through video calls from Bolepur. Her lockdown teatim snack list includes aloo chop — mashed potato with spices, coated with egg and bread crumbs and deep fried in oil, fried ‘begunis’ (batter fried eggplant) and ‘peyaji’ (onion fritters).
- Rice — 2 cups
- Coconut — 2 cups, freshly grated
- Sugar — Half cup
- Salt — a pinch
- Water as required
- Soak the rice for an hour. Wash and drain excess water and let it go semi dry. Grind to a fine powder. Keep the powder in a bowl covered with a wet cloth. Mix rice flour, freshly grated coconut, sugar and salt. Fill half a kettle with water and bring to boil. Place the rice flour mixture on the kettle lid and press gently. Cover it with a wet muslin cloth. Tie the ends and fold back to the head of the lid securing the mixture for steaming. Place the lid back on the kettle and let it steam on medium flame for 6-7 minutes. Remove the muslin cloth and take out the pithas and place it in a plate gently. Serve hot with tea.
Certain foods go beyond their scope; they kindle fond memories of home and relationships, says Jisha M R, a Malayali married to an Assamese, living in Delhi. When she first came across the ‘tekeli pitha’, she knew she had found love. “It looked like idli and tasted like puttu and since then, it has been my favourite,” she says. Pithas are primarily made from a batter of rice flour or wheat flour, which is shaped into a pouch and filled with sweet or savoury ingredients.
Tekeli pithas are essentially rice cakes steamed in a kettle or an earthen pot, from which it derives its name. Jisha aims to master the dish with help from her sister-in-law Malavika Goswami and mother-in-law Renu Goswami during the lockdown. “For me, food is about one’s family, emotions and experience,” she says.
(With inputs from Nivedita Ganguly and Priyadershini S)