Describing the flavors and the smells seems an essential part of falling in love with Indian food. As if the scents of the markets, the curry leaves rustling by on the backs of cycles in the morning, the sounds of mustard seeds popping as they meet hot oil and the way the smell of sambar can be sensed blocks before you reach the kitchen were all a part of the recipe.
In my mind they are.
I recently read this article about Indian food, about why scientists have found the flavors of Indian food to be so tantalizing. It’s true, I never knew flavors so complex, yet ingredients so simple before my arrival here in Chennai. As I learn these dishes from Mrs. Rita, I jot down notes feverishly describing textures, and flavors and struggle when writing recipes, many of which lie deep in the history of this place and how to accurately bring them to an audience outside of India who understand little about the art involved.
It is no secret that a lot of design and staging goes into food photography, to accurately describe a recipe as it relates to a place you’ve never been, that feeling you get when you smell it, the light that warm, thick light that hits your kitchen table on a summer morning in Madras. When I began dreaming of shooting this recipe, and thinking about the sensory experience I’d share, my thoughts immediately wandered to the front steps of homes in the early morning and kolams drawn by women on hot, damp pavement.
Vada is as special of a treat here as a trip to Dunkin Donuts at home. Vada is South India’s answer to a savory donut. With an extra crispy outside, like an old-fashioned donut, and the same soft interior. The dough is made of soaked lentils and rice flour and is, therefore gluten free and yields a flavorful surprise in every bite, cilantro, black peppercorns, sliced chili, curry leaves and more. Everyone has their own variation of ingredients to add to the lentil base of vada, this is how Mrs. Rita (and my family!) likes it best: