Thursday, August 07, 2003

pressing engagement

History comes alive on the plate in Kerala, where the pain of making idiyappam is exceeded only by the pleasure of eating it

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in August 2003).

MY SISTERS AND I always looked forward to idiyappam on Sundays, but not without a little trepidation. The whole family was in good spirits as my mother dry-roasted the parboiled rice flour to make the dough.

Then the trouble began. My father would bring out the presser--a device that looked like something out of a medieval torture chamber--to turn the dough into thin white noodles, and my mother would volunteer to turn the rickety machine's crank. But soon, with a sigh, my father would take over while my mother wrestled to keep the presser pinned to the ground. Much sweating, much cursing, and by the end they were vowing never to make idiyappam again.

Thankfully, their memories were short, and like most families in the southern India state of Kerala, we regularly feasted on these light and fluffy steamed noodles.

Idiyappam is native to Kerala but may have its roots in contacts with China that go back 2,000 years. More recently, says Praveen Anand, a food historian and chef at Dakshin restaurant in Chennai, the Chinese concept of steaming food took root in India after traders from the court of Kublai Khan arrived in the 14th century.

Rice, though, goes back much further in Kerala. Unlike most Indians, who generally eat polished rice, Keralites prefer unhulled rice, which--soaked, steamed and dried--is the basic ingredient in idiyappam. Anand says the custom of eating these reddish-coloured grains may come from Kerala's ancient medical system of Ayurveda, which stresses relaxation and healthy eating.

No Keralite could do without idiyappam, especially for breakfast. The combinations are endless, but one of the most popular is idiyappam with ishtoo, a coconut-milk curry with peppercorns and vegetables or meat. Or there's lemon idiyappan--noodles with grated coconut and a squeeze of lemon. Or tamarind idiyappam--noodles with tamarind pulp, ginger and green chillies.

Not long ago, my parents decided to end their long-running battle with the idiyappam presser. Now they buy packaged idiyappam, which can be boiled like any other dried noodle. Still, every now and then they admit that it doesn't taste as good as the idiyappam from the machine. And they're right.

Idiyappam can be found in restaurants specializing in southern Indian cuisine. In New Delhi try Sagar in the Defence Colony Market. Tel.: (91 11) 2433-3658. Open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.