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Appalam ( also known as Popadoms, Pappads, Lentil Wafers )

Today, I want to talk about appalam, a favorite snack or side dish in India. Appalam is a basic part of many South Indian meals and no festival or ceremony dinner is complete without appalam on the menu. Though some versions of appalam are made with rice flour, when South Indian says appalam it is usually the one made with the lentil flour.

These days appalam is something you buy in a store but in the old days making it was a social occasion for women of all ages. The appalam was made during the summer when there was enough sun shine to dry them before the rainy season started. As appalam is very time consuming to make, women of a village would gather together and make appalams for every household for the whole season. It was a big production but each person knew exactly what to do and had her own expertise.

On appalam day all the men and children would be fed and sent out and all the able bodied women would gather together in one house. Older women who could not do the hard physical work would provide direction while younger women would gather sun dried lentil ground into soft flour. They would add spices, salt, cumin seeds and natural preservatives (they didn’t have MSG) along with a type of cactus freshly picked (we call it perandai in Tamil and it itches the hand like crazy). All these things would be mixed together and softened by thumping with a steel pestle until ready, which could take a while. Rolled into small key lime size balls, they would be flattened by young girls with rolling-pins - so many for each house, depending on the number of persons in a household. The rounds would now be spread on fresh clean white cloth or mats in the sun. The young boys would now be called in to scare away the crows that usually show up for a taste. After several days in the hot summer sun, the appalam would be dry and ready to store away with each household taking its share. Until the next year the work would be done and all would have had an enjoyable if hard working day sharing stories, jokes, laughing, and singing.

Similar to appalam are vattal and vadam though made with rice. Sago or tapioca pearls, green chilies and asafetida ( hing ) are added to the rice flour with lemon juice and salt. Different molds are used to make various shapes and spooned onto mats and dried in the sun. Appalam is also made in other parts of India with different recipes and known by similar names like Pappadam in Kerala and Papad in Gujarat. The Punjabi papad is spicy with cracked black peppers in it and others can be found with a variety of spices in them. One version I like from Kerala is called Konkini pappadam which retains some moisture in it so that frying makes it in to a little balloon.

Indian restaurants have popularized appalam around the world as an appetizer before the meal. I notice Westerners initially feel some awkwardness about biting into a big, fragile round saucer as it breaks in the hand, but as they see their fellow Indian diners just biting into it without a care they join them in doing the same.

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