Banana flower vada

S Balakrishnan *

A riddle goes like this - 'A flower indeed, no doubt; but women don't wear it nor to the gods is it offered. What flower is it?' Obviously, the answer is in the title itself - it is the banana flower. Despite these drawbacks it has a tasty role to play. When it is made as vada, there is nothing to beat it. It may not be as popular as its cousin, the soft vada, maybe because of the intricacies in preparing it but the result is mouth-watering.

The most popular of the vada family is the soft vada (the correct spelling of this South Indian delicacy is vadai, as the South Indian names traditionally end with. So, don't forget the i nor to dot it). This soft vadai is made up of urad dhal (black gram), hence the softness.

The black gram with the black skin removed, because our love for white skin is known well. That is why our market is flooded with fairness creams & lotions even for men! So it is appropriately called the 'medhu' vadai, certifying its soft nature, and is also called the 'ulundu' (urad dhal) vadai.

Its uniqueness is in its mystic centre hole which aids in the inside batter getting cooked evenly. How ingenious of our ancestors! The Sangh Pariwar could proclaim aloud to the world that it was Indians who invented the hole and also first used it scientifically for the good of humankind.

Then there is its cousin, the paruppu vadai, made of bengal gram. Because its shape resembles a turtle, it is called 'aamai' (turtle) vadai in Tamil. But believe me, it is purely a vegetarian cuisine. Another tastier and crispier vadai type is the 'keerai' vadai with greens as an ingredient. The greens, when fried, give it the crispy quality.

These three varieties of vadai - the medhu/ulundu, paruppu/turtle, and keerai - are popular as they are easy to prepare compared to the heroine of this article. Heroine, because it is made out of a flower. Of course, unlike in Hindi, the Tamil grammar does not qualify inanimate objects into male and female genders.

Even out of this trio, the first two are available even in small eateries, especially the road-side eateries. These two go well with tea or coffee. You wash a couple of these vadais down with either of these beverages and you can sustain for a few hours. The rate though varies as per the standard of the eateries. Vadai usually goes well with chutney or sambhar.

Again, in chutney there could be umpteen varieties, the most popular being coconut chutney. There isjust one more vadai, the 'thavalai' (frog) vadai, prepared by mixing various dhal varieties, but not quite popular. Maybe the name puts off people, particularly the vegetarians.

By noon, the unsold medhu vadais that were prepared in the morning take different avatars. Along with the remaining sambar they combine to form hot sambhar vadai; if it is summer season, the vadais are soaked in curd and refrigerated to become cool, classy and costly curd vadais. The turtle vadai, unfortunately, cannot assume any other avatar, maybe because Lord Vishnu Himself had taken its form in His second avatar as Koorma.

The banana flower (blossom) vadai was brought to my gastronomic notice by a Tamil film. How wrong the saying "'ignorance is bliss"', I realised only after tasting this variety of vadai, of which I was ignorant till then. In the Tamil film 'Kandu konden, kandu konden' ('I have found it'), the once-rich heroines' (two heroines, Aishwarya Rai & Tabu), family becomes a pauper due to machination of relatives; hence their mother is forced work as a cook in a city restaurant where she prepares her unique banana flower vadai.

One of the heroes (naturally there have to be at least two heroes, no? But here there are three heroes to add drama to the plot, which is said to be based on Jane Austin's Sense & Sensibility), Malluwood superstar Mammootty, who happens to visit the eatery, tastes this special item. By its taste he is damn sure it must have been prepared by that particular lady, as he had earlier tasted it at their palatial village house.

The rest you can as well guess - yes, everything ends well, of course with some twists & turns.

After watching the movie on TV, at home we went mad searching the recipe for this unheard of unique vadai variety. And with the cooperation of all the family members, the first experiment was launched. It turned out 50% successful. By trials and errors, I must admit that at last my wife has become an expert banana flower vadai maker, for which the family members willingly served as guinea pigs.

But note that I am solidly hidden behind her success, because the complicated process of preparing the banana flower for vadai always falls on me. Succumbing to its taste, I willingly undertake this dirty job. Dirty, because my manicured nails get stained and remain so for over a week, revealing my weakness for this vadai. That is the punishment if one's tongue becomes slave to tasty food. Here is the straining-cum-staining preparation process-

First the bracts/petals are removed (the big bracts can later be used as eco-friendly disposable plates to serve the vadais), and the florets (the future bananas) thus collected are kept aside. Then the pistil (which resembles a match stick) is removed from each and every single floret along with the calyx, the outer covering in each floret; remember, there would be a minimum of 100 or even more florets in a single flower!

After this back-breaking and patience-testing tedious cleaning process, the cleaned florets are cut into small pieces and soaked in water mixed with buttermilk to avoid discoloration and to reduce the astringent taste. Later, the diced floret material is taken out, the excess water squeezed out and used for various preparations. Besides vadai, the material thus prepared can also be used to make stir-fried dish or as a gravy dish with tur dhal.

Now, let us concentrate on vadai only. The cleansed & squeezed floret material is mixed with Bengal gram dhal that is pre-soaked, and put in mixie and ground coarsely by adding salt, dried chillies, onion, asafoetida (for its digestive property and flavour). The solid batter is rolled into small balls of ping-pong size, flattened with hands and then deep fried. Lo! At last the crispy & tasty banana flower vadai is ready. It goes well even without chutney. Tomato sauce comes handy as a good substitute for chutney.

Sometimes I load myself with so many of this vadai as evening snacks (after all I have laboured so much; so, don't I deserve them?) that I am forced to sacrifice my dinner, or end up with just curd rice. At this tasty juncture, I am reminded of a fable where a fox tricks the crow to drop the vadai it is carrying in its beak (earlier stolen by it from an elderly lady who was preparing vadais on the street side).

This local version could either predate Aesop's fable or be an adapted version where cheese is replaced with vadai. Make in India! So much so that nowadays if someone loses something to someone, it is wryly commented upon as 'your vadai is forfeited'!

Vadai (particularly the soft variety) is so popular that in the hotels it is a must item in the breakfast menu; it could be either a combination of idli (note the letter "'i"' here also) & vadai, or pongal & vadai. This is so in wedding menu also.

Special guests' arrival at home is indicated with hectic preparation for vadai and payasam (payas). Most of the religious and social festivities are also marked by vadai's ubiquitous presence. As I start and conclude this gastronomic masterpiece travelling in a day train, the tempting smell of medhu (soft) vadai wafts, preceding the vendor's call.

Bon appetite, but don't blame me if your beautifully manicured nails get stained. As far as I am concerned, I have a cost-effective manicuring method by way of biting the nails which may not be a healthy method. Remember to air parcel your banana blossom vadai (at least a dozen) for my review & rating!

* S Balakrishnan wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be contacted at krishnanbala2004(AT)yahoo(DOT)co(DOT)in
This article was webcasted on August 04, 2018.

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