Is it really an Indian kitchen unless it has witnessed batter-wrapped vegetables being dunked deep into the heart of a cauldron containing heated oil?
You know, I am freshly out of watching Sacred Games, which means I tend to swear a lot. Stuff that would make even Tara Bai’s teeth curl.
So, when someone said French fries to me and when someone else muttered Kentucky fried chicken, my reactions were in a manner that would make only Ganesh Gaitonde or Bunty not blush.
What I mean to say is pshaw to French-wench and Kentucky-fentucky.If there’s anyone who knows their fries, it’s us Indians. Because, it’s not the French or the Americans, but we Indians who understand that frying—and not just any old namby-pamby shallow frying, but deep-oil frying when things scuba dive down, down, and deeper down into cauldrons of boiling golden oil, then gently bob up, showing off their now crisply, freshly gold-brown-glistening selves—is as primeval as itching.
And that’s because deep frying is a tribute to rain.
And there is no race on earth more in love with rain than we Indians.
For us, it’s a god, a goddess, maybe even a gaggle of deities (It’s not for nothing that the Lord of the Devas also happens to be the god of thunder and rain). It’s the stuff that wins elections and decides whether the Sensex and your Moody’s credit rating will go up or down. It’s a headiness that is better than anything you quaff in a pub. It inspires music composers, especially filmi ones, to compose thousands of rhim-jhimketarane. Ragas are dedicated to it (Does anyone know which came first – Raga Malhar or rain?). It is the excuse for our women (and our film heroines) to show our men how glorious their bodies are without having to take their clothes off (Holi is the other excuse). It’s what made Sridevi the goddess of wet dreams and it is an aphrodisiac with an A (Will someone please research to see if the maximum number of babies conceived are during the monsoons?). And when the babies thus born are girls, it’s what we name them after.
Varsha. Varshini. Barkha. Amaya. Sraboni.
And in the kitchen, rain is what inspires us to fry. Deep fry.
Think about it. After months of sweltering and sweating and swearing at a searing, unforgiving, unblinking sun, when the clouds finally spread to cover the sun’s blazing gaze and the first raindrops fall ‘plippity-plop’ and soak the poor, gasping, dried, and old earth to make it smell like moist, rich fruit cake, that is when millions of Indians suddenly hear...no, not Raga MeghMalhar, but the unmistakable sound of something sizzling. Actually, it’s not a sizzle. Sizzlers sizzle, the silly things. This is more of a ‘blub-blib-blib-blisssh-blub-blib-blissssh-blisssh-blissssh’.
The sound of deep frying.
Pakoras. Maybe bhajiyas. Or, perhaps,bondas.
Naturally, as a people who speak 122 languages, 234 mother tongues and god-alone-knows-how-many dialects, we don’t stop at this noble but tiny trio (Though I’ll have you know that each of the three is a universe in itself with hundreds of stars,like the Bengali pakoras made out of the leaves of the parijata tree and the Kannadiga green chilli pakoras, so beloved that we grow a special chilli for it called bajjimennasinakai. Like breadfruit and sweet potato bhajiyas and urad dal bondas so crisp, so round, so large and so full of promise to explode in your bowl of hot sambar into a crispy-squishy-laced-with-coconut-pieces-and-peppercorns mess that in my part of the woods, they are often called ‘super-bombbondas’).
What I mean to say is that almost anything is grist to the Indian kadai (cauldron). So, we make chips out of jackfruit and elephant yam (French fries? Really? Yawn), chiwda out of cornflakes (take that, Kellogg's), sev out of potato, pooris out of ripe bananas and vadas out of raw ones. And papads (I won’t even begin to tell you what sandige is and how many varieties, except that it often has pumpkin in it) out of everything, including kanji (rice gruel). Our fasting foods are sabudanavadas. In fact, the world’s first doughnut was not sweet but savoury – a meduvada (But all vadas don’t have a hole in the middle, just as all South Indians are not Madrasis). We deep fry everything from onions to okra. It’s mandatory though to put in a mention for the carnivores amongst us, as also anything that once moved (fried Bombay duck, dear Kentucky Fried Firangis, is not a bird but a fish.We fry chicken too, but first eat Amritsarimacchi, and then let’s talk).
We do all kinds of things to batter and dough – stuff them, coat things with them, dip things into them, dribble them through slotted spoons, press them through extruders and wheedle-knead them into shapes that are more numerous than the dialects we speak, all to be finally deep fried in a bharjanapatra....oops sorry, I mean in a kadai.
We deep fry things so deeply that they stay as fried as the day they were fried till you cross the Atlantic – by boat – and back. We puff things up so that they almost fly away – with you to the moon. We crisp up things so that only the outside is crunchy, but the inside remains as soft as god-bless-our-deep-fried Indian hearts. We fry things to such a flakiness that a mere lover’s sigh will make them crumble or waft away like dandelion seeds. Ice melts in the mouths of the rest of the world. In Indians’ mouths, it is our mums’ homemade chakli. Or chiroti. Or murukku. Or mathri. Or boondi. Or balushahi. Or shankarpoli. Or samosa. Or jalebi.
You get my drift.
And dear idiot-air-fryer makers (and the celebs who endorse it)– don’t you know that we can teach you a few things about how to deep fry where the oil is like Santa Claus – we know it visited us but only because we can see the hint-est trace of it.
All this because we have been frying things for a very, very long time. To put a figure to it, for 5,000 years at least (Copper frying pans were found in Harappa and we were deep frying things in pure ghee when the Rig Veda was being written). Or to put it another way, perhaps, since we first figured out how to extract oil from sesame seeds, which was so long ago that the Tamil word for sesame, ‘enn’ or ‘ell’ (‘yellu’ in Kannada), gradually became the generic word for oil – ‘ennai’ – in both Tamil and Kannada (Similarly, the Hindi and Sanskrit word for oil –‘tel’ or ‘taila’ – comes from the Sanskrit ‘tila’ for sesame). And we didn’t stop at sesame. Sushrutha, the sage of Ayurveda, listed 60 oilseeds, and Kautilya four more. And, meanwhile, someone, somewhere, invented the tadka (vagaar, chaunk, phodni, thaalithal, thalimpu, oggarne); that spitting, sputtering, hissing-hot melange of spices and herbs deep frying in hot oil (or better still, ghee) that will transform the most hideous hag of a dal into a Menaka fit for any Vishwamitra.
In fact, as the centuries flew past like so many fried poha flakes and frying, oil,therefore,became such an indispensable and important part of Indian cooking that by the sixth century BCE, not only did we have oil pressing machines (Panini mentions a ‘taliapeshanayantra’), but also an entire class of people who were professional oil pressers. There are many versions of the story of how they came to be, mostly related to Lord Shiva. My favourite is that since Shiva wanted an oil massage, he created a man from his sweat and ordered him to be an oil presser.
In Karnataka, these oil pressers were called ganigars, the word derived from the Kannada word for oil press or ‘gana’. And if you go to a place called Ganigarpete (translates to the Market of oil pressers) in old Bengaluru, you will still see a giant stone ‘gana’ standing in front of the Cheluvarayaswamy temple, reverently covered in turmeric. In Andhra, the community is called Gandla, in Tamil Nadu, VaniyaChettiars and elsewhere in India, Teli (Naturally.) But I was saving for the last what it is called in Gujarat for a very special reason. Because I wanted to say “phooey” to the likes of Mani Shankar Aiyar, who turned up their brown sahib noses at Narendra Modi’s past as a chaiwala. Which he was as a boy, as was his father. But his family belongs to the Modh-Ghanchi community who are – yes, you guessed right– the community of oil pressers in Gujarat!
What does that prove? Well just that, yes, I’m a fan girl, as deeply as we Indians are fan people of rain and things deep fried.
But the final word on how deep-fried our love is for things deep-fried is in a Sanskrit word.
But also meaning oil.
(With grateful thanks to K T Achaya and his magnificent treatise ‘Indian Food: A Historical Companion’, my food bible without which I wouldn’t have written so much about food as I have)