Some places do snacks really well. Thailand is one, Sumatra another. And then there is India, a country in a Snack Class all its own. In Tamil Nadu we found the snacks so copious, so varied, so readily available that we could have foregone proper meals and subsisted on snacks alone for days.
For me, food is "snack" if it's portable and can be eaten with one hand. My ideal snack is also liquor friendly; extra points if it's crispy. Unsauced samosa and vadai, bhajii and bonda qualify as snacks. So do lighter bites -- like the myriad wafers, crisps and crunchies made at two old family-owned snacks workshops we visited in Karaikudi, a small town in Chettinad.
At least eight crisp snacks sold from a stall in Tamil Nadu
"Forty or so years ago every household would have made their own snacks. Nowadays no one has time for that, so we do it for them," said the manager of Soundaram's, our first snack stop. Snacks are ubiquitous in Tamil Nadu life she told us, adding that when she was young her mother always set out one sweet and one savory snack for her to eat when she returned home from school.
By Sunday mid-morning production was already well underway at the 15 year-old workshop, which is housed in a family home. Snack making happens out back on a large thatch-roofed patio, whilie a small room next to the home's entrance does double duty as storeroom and showroom. When we arrived stacks of plastic-packaged snacks teetered atop folding tables, with more piled knee deep on the floor. While we were there customers streamed into the house and left carrying two, five and even twenty bags of snacks. By the time we departed two hours later the workshop's inventory was nearly depleted.
The Day of Rest is a big one for snacks.
Before heading out to the workshop we sat down to taste. The photo above shows just some of Soundaram's product, all of which are deep-fried and most of which are made with one or another variety of dal and/or rice flour. Before traveling to Tamil Nadu I was familiar mainly with the spicy deep-fried coils called murukku (named for their shape, for murukku means "twisted" in Tamil), which are sold in Penang's Little India in the days leading up to Deepavali. But I had no idea that the Indian snacks repertoire was so vast.
Mavurundai (next to the cup of chai) are crumbly Mexican wedding cookie-reminiscent balls of moong dal (yellow mung beans), ghee and sugar, sweet but not saccharine. Kai murukku (moving clockwise from the balls) are pleasantly thick unspiced coils of ground rice mixed with toasted split urad dal (back lentil), while seepu seedai (so named because of their ridges -- seepu means "comb"), are light and crispy with a texture recalling the American corn crisp Bugles.
Blossom-shaped achu murukku (achu for "sweet") are sugary and a little bit sticky and probably the most substantial snack of the bunch. Manakolam taste toasty and a bit like American-Chinese chop suey noodles. Seed-like seedai are plain and extra crunchy, almost hard, while the beautiful ridged coil called kaara murukku has a wee bite from powdered chilies. My two favorite Tamil Nadu snacks are up top: lovely layered athirasam sweetened with jaggery and scented with cardamom, and super spicy flattened disks called thattai.
Soundaram's employs about 20 women ranging in age from 16 to their mid-twenties; on any given day half of the staff are out back toasting dal, mixing dough, kneading together palm and cane jaggeries for athirasam, sifting rice flour and deep-frying snacks.
In one corner thattai, for which moong dal, bengal gram and rice flour are mixed with the pungent spice asafoetida, sea salt and powdered chili, were in process. The dough had been mixed earlier and left to rest briefly. Now two ladies worked together, one rolling walnut-sized pieces of dough into balls while the other pressed them into patties, which she then lightly perforated -- this to prevent the wafers from puffing up when they hit hot oil and to give extra crispiness.
At Meiyammai Ramasamy, our second snack stop, workers fry their snacks the old-fashioned way, on big stone hearths fueled by wood. "We'll miss the flavor if we use gas," Meiyammai's owner told me. (She also added that gas is more expensive than wood.)
Meiyammai's product line is not as vast as Soundaram's; in the workshop only murukku (opening photo) and athirasam were were in progress. As one woman used oiled fingertips to pat out thin rice flour and jaggery patties another placed a pinch of dough at the base of her hearth -- an offering to the elephant-headed Lord Ganesh. Then she slipped the uncooked athirasam into shimmering oil where they sunk, quickly resurfacd, puffed and browned.
I couldn't say whether or not the scent of wood smoke had anything to do with it, but I did prefer Meiyammai's athirasam over Soundaram's. Made with less jaggery than usual, it cooks up lighter and highly layered, with an extra flaky surface that almost floats off of the pastry. And there's nothing like eating a kai murukku warm out of the kadai.
Like the shoppers at Soundaram's we left both workshops laden with bags of athirasam, murukku and thattai. With three more days of road travel ahead there would be plenty of time for snacking in the car.
Soundaram’s Chettinad Sweets and Snacks No. 62, M.G. Road 3rd Cross, Soodamanipuram, Karaikudi. +90 456 565 0733
Meiyammai Ramasamy, No 3 Narayana Ambalam South Street, Kottaiyur