Sweets & Savouries err…palagaram
It wouldn’t certainly be an understatement if I said, for Tamilians, palagaram is an emotion, while sweets and savouries are mere words. Palagaram, the very word, conjures beautiful images of crispy fried murukkus and firm ladoos and what not.
Recently, around Deepavali at the husband’s hometown, we got chatting with my uncle and aunty (by law), who gave us, arguably the best palagarams of the season. They brought us munthiri kothu, soft and crispy murukkus, and melt-in-the mouth ladoos. Besides the obviously great taste of the palagarams what caught my eyes and imagination was how the uncle, not aunty, was so involved in his description of each dish. He went on, “the munthiri kothus need a coating of maida, but we decided against it for health reasons,” “the murukkus got a tad extra helping of salt,” “the ladoos turned out perfect; we didn’t grind the boondis,” and so on and so forth. The joy of seeing a retired mathematics professor so involved in something typically stereotyped as “women-only” jobs switched on my ever-ready-with-charts-and-pictures hippocamus.
Images of our homes, both at the Hireath and other places, filled my mind. The week before Christmas, both mom and dad would take off just to get palagrams done and packed. All four of us would have our duties finely laid out, and there can be no short changes or any cut backs on that. How parents managed to extract so much labor from kids back then will always remain mystery to me.
So, yea, first things first. The best rice, pottukadalais (fried gram), peanuts, raisins, butter (truckloads of it), and oil would be sourced. Mom reiterating to dad “first quality” still rings in my ears. Wonder what it was anyway. Butter was anyway from none other Aavin, where mom worked. We dare think of any other milk product. Our Aavin association continues to this day, even after mom’s retirement.
Clean towels or sun-dried white cotton sheets will be laid under the fan to dry the washed rice, as the aroma of freshly roasted ulutham paruppu (black gram dal) or ellu (sesame) filled the air. In sometime, plastic containers with an assortment of palagaram raw materials will be prepared. I would usually be in charge of getting all of them ground to varying degrees of fineness at the flour mill. The fineness was crucial to the final product.
Each time, making the flour for ootaadai also called thattai would be nothing short of a sleight of hand trick for me. This dish uses copious amount of rice, ulutham paruppu, and most importantly a handful of well roasted dry chillies. The idea is to produce a savoury that’s just salty like a murukku, but teases with just a hint of heat. And, so the handful of chillies. At the flour mills, you’ll find three machines, one for rice and related grains; one for chillies, dhania, tumeric, and masalas (all the hot and colored stuff); and one for siakkakai (soap nut that women use to wash hair). The purity of each machine will be strictly ensured by segregation rules. One of them is no chilly can ever get into the rice machine. Every year, we kids would find ways to cheat the mill operators just so we can enjoy the ootaadais that year. Poor guys, they could never be half as smart as us.
Once all the flours would be in, the man of the house, daddy, would come in with some fanfare. Methinks it did his ego some boost that only he could do all the heavy lifting, or probably because he also enjoyed making the palagarams like the uncle-in-law who triggered these lovely memories for me.
So, yea, basins washed and put away to be taken out only once a year would be removed from the lofts and washed and dried. Mom would gingerly measure the flour, add the exact quantity of butter, salt, and other stuff, and every single time (even if the entire neighborhood swore by her palagarams) look to us for approval of the taste and consistency of the batter. In no time, daddy would be busy squeezing the murukkus on to oil smeared plates or even the back of the ladle to be dunked into the boiling oil. My sister would be taster-in-chief, who’d suggest some final tweaks to the mix. Since this activity would be a long-drawn process, dad would set up the gas stove to the floor and prepare a nice place for mom to sit comfortably and fry the palagarams while the rest of the party continued with its assigned duties. Soon enough, it would be time to bring out the huge containers to store the palagarams. To make them airtight, we’d use discarded plastic bags, cut them to fit over the containers, and shut them tight until Christmas.
On Christmas day, the palagaram dabbas will be opened and distributed to our near and dear ones. And, this again would be a family activity. No wonder festivals bring family members closer to each other. And also in many ways than one breaks stereotypes and ushers in change, happiness, and joy.
Wish you all a happy deepavali. And, a happy, but quite early advent.