Fellowship of the Podi – An Incredible Foodie Saga

My relationship with food seems to be a continuing saga which has a life of its own, independent of mine and with a reckless disregard for any kind of decorum. My otherwise peaceful and regular life (I know you read that as boring!) was shattered recently by a blast from the past. However, this was no regular run-of-the-mill blast from the past, but one of those heavy-duty ones, like a thermonuclear blast from that past that somehow found a wormhole to exit right in the middle of my neatly ordered (yeah, right!) existence. In terms of life-altering occurrences, this was right up there with the discovery of the chicken curry-vadai combo and the realization that you can wear unmatched socks everyday and laugh at coordinated socks-wearers all day long.

In order to understand all of this, we have to go back, Memento-like (not Ghajini-like, for that would be just wrong), to the summer of 1988. Yes, that long back. No, it’s not in black and white, but the color is pretty faded and grainy, so you can be forgiven for thinking it’s an off-brand insta-ripoff filter. We were in Class 9, and two of our schoolmasters, for whatever reason, thought it would be a good idea to take a few of us schoolboys on a bus tour to Madras (it hadn’t yet been dragged kicking and screaming into modern identity politics and was quite blissfully happy with its historic, if colonially hung-over, name then). We were in our early teens – easily amused, easily bored, easily impressed and with attention spans that could be measured in nanoseconds. Thankfully, we did not know any of this and had a grand time.

The highlight of the tour was that due to the prevailing political situation (which involved groups of people cutting down trees and throwing them on highways, blocking all traffic) we never made it to Madras. Instead, we made it as far as Villupuram, where the schoolmasters had enough of politics and decided to wait a night to see if the people who had thrown tree-trunks on the highways would come and take them away. Of course, this did not happen – whoever heard of political demonstrators cleaning up after themselves if they aren’t Japanese. So after depleting the limited entertainment opportunities our place of stay in Villupuram offered, they turned the bus around and brought us all back home.

I suspect I was as satisfied as I would have been if we had actually gone to all the places planned on the tour – after all, it was the first time I had gone on something like that and I found it remarkably entertaining. Apart from the scintillating experience of watching Jeeva on the bus video screen seventy two times and listening to the Agni Natchatram soundtrack six hundred and fifty eight times (every single note of the birdsong from ‘Oru Poongavanam’ is seared forever into my memory), I had another experience that was life-altering. However, I did not realise how life-altering it was till about a couple of weeks ago – a full 31 years later. Talk about slow burn.

Next to the place we were staying in Villupuram, there was a vegetarian restaurant. This was a deliberate plan by our schoolmasters who I suspect did not want to deal with a busload of teenage schoolboys complaining of hunger. Now, one thing you must know about childhood me is that I was not the cavalier eater in strange places I am today. Eating food not cooked by my mom meant either a) it was a special occasion and we were eating out or b) we were visiting relatives and I’d be eating something cooked by one of my relatives. So for me, while we were at Villupuram, every meal, snack, sneaked ice-lolly, cup of tea or coffee was an adventure. One part of this adventure was eating a coupon meal. This involved paying the man at the counter some money, whereupon he would give you a coupon, with a separate coupon for a cup of curd. If you misplaced either of these coupons, you were out of lunch, and so you guarded it with your life till you handed it over carefully to the major domo. Once that was done, you were served a full banana leaf meal, which ended with a cup of curd. But what is relevant today is how the meal began.

The meal began with one of the servers dumping some hot steaming rice on my banana leaf. Before I could grok what was happening, another server rapidly dropped some orange powder on the mound of rice and poured some ghee on it. Now this whole thing was as conceptually alien to me as sticking to a game plan is to the Pakistani cricket team when they are playing India. So, tentatively, I mixed in the orange powder into the rice with the ghee and proceeded to carefully eat some of it. It was at that point, I suspect, something changed within me, and it was the first awakening of my will-eat-anything-twice-and-then-again personality. I went home a changed boy. The idly podi at home was never again safe from my depredation if there was ghee at home (it was not always there, and was a special-occasion-only, made-at-home, specialty). Wherever I went, I used to try and get some sort of podi to mix with ghee and hot rice. It usually worked, and at times it backfired. But I kept at it until it became part of what I did wherever I went.

If you have been following my writing, you would have loved my almost-Pulitzer-prize winning (not!) account of my meal experiences at the Subbayya Gari Hotel (SGH hereafter). If you haven’t read it yet, now would be a good time to go read it. Go on – I’ll wait.

Okay now that we got the whole SGH meal saga out of the way, here’s the life-altering bit. It didn’t happen the first time I went to SGH, nor did it happen the second time. By now I had figured my favourite part was the kandi podi, and I totally dispensed with the sambar, rasam and majjiga saru. I went straight from kandi podi to more kandi podi to perugu. It was after the third time I ate there that it hit me. Remember all those TV shows and movies you’ve seen where the junior but oh-so-talented FBI / CIA / MI5 / RAW / Tamil Nadu Police protagonist keeps telling their superiors about how seemingly minor incidents all tie in to a larger plot only they can see, and it all comes together in the final scene where the superior officer arrives just in time to see the end credits? Like that only it happened for me – my brain was telling me something I was not prepared to listen – at least until the third time.

The kandi podi was having such a profound effect on me because the last time I had eaten it was 31 years ago, in that restaurant at Villupuram! From that day on, I had been searching, futilely, for that taste. I’d been looking so long for it that I’d forgotten I was looking for it! And when I found it finally, it took me three tries to realise that I had found it. But the emotional effect had come to me immediately, and I had no idea how to deal with it because I lacked the understanding I now have. Once again, a culinary circle has been completed in my life. A pattern that has been in the weaving for thirty one years has finally been finished. The humble but amazingly tasty kandi podi sits bang in the middle of all this drama. Now that I have identified this obsession, I’ve procured enough quantities to never be left wanting again!

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