My childhood neighbour Sriram was a fulltime postmaster and a part-time papadum maker with his mother and siblings. It was captivating to watch them sit composed and silently going through the process of rolling different sizes of traditional Kerala papadums. Although it has been accepted as a global snack now, the puffed-up papadums are a must with every meal in Kerala. Its spot on the left corner of the banana leaf, its crunching sound and its aroma surround every wedding meal.
In Delhi, I never found the music of a soft rumbling Kerala papadum, instead I’ve seen the larger ones (these are the Tamil version called applams)—people calling it pappad everywhere. The story of papadum began from humble village homes, like that of Sriram’s, where making papadum was considered an opportunity for women to earn some pocket money aiding their much-deserved liberation. Rising demands made papadum travel far and wide, keeping this ubiquitous south Indian tradition alive.
As I was getting used to flat ones and the name pappad, one day I heard an English customer at a Delhi restaurant asking, ‘Do you serve papadums?’. It was music to my ears to hear a foreigner pronouncing the vernacular word correctly. But I wondered where the Englishman learnt it.
In the 1980s, there was a remarkable growth for Indian food and restaurants in the UK. Finding a curry house in every high street corner was quite normal. England had embraced the Indian cuisine wholeheartedly, which in turn led to a restaurant revolution to everyone’s surprise. Papadum as the entrée got tremendous acceptance and became instantly popular. The combination of papadum and mango chutney with Indian beer had become a regular choice especially among young people. Papadums from Chennai were available in every Asian shop and ready-to-eat mini-papadums were seen in British supermarkets in the snack sections.
Unlike India, where people eat papadums with their meals, in the UK it had taken the position of a premeal course with sweet mango dip (which tastes more like a jam) and mint sauce. Though Indian customers never understood the logic of this combination, the British loved it.
By this time, mango chutney and concentrated mint sauce started becoming available
in cash-and-carry outlets across Britain along with factory-made bottled curry sauces. Majority of the Indian restaurants in Britain started using this cheap readymade curry pastes rather than making the base masala. At Rasa, we stayed away from this habit and replaced the anglicised habit with a completely authentic experience by serving a variety of snacks and an array of real, Indian flavoured chutneys and pickles. India has an amazing diversity of snacks and the stories of our homemade pickles and chutnies are legendary.
Through the years, papadum still remains a favourite entrée at many British diners,
just like their beer and curry. In India, however, many things have changed around the
local cuisine as new restaurants have replaced old ones. Nonetheless, people still make sure they start their meals with papadums. Even today, papadums can be easily made
and served faster than any other dish.
The author runs the London-based Rasa chain of restaurants