By Jonathan Rodrigues
It was a long day in Salem. Having listened to over four dozen young speakers present their take on dispute resolution in India, I was really tired and the only thing I could think of was some crunchy street snack. Shameless for food, I made some queries with my new friend from the city – Mr Jayasuriya.
“Sir, first of all, everyone was fond of you. You blended in so well. But, we shall talk about that later. You want street food? I will get you some world-famous Salem sandwich,” he said, attempting to summarise the day and be a food guide at the same time.
“No, no! I eat a lot of sandwiches back in Goa. I want something special, something that makes everyone in Salem go nuts,” I said.
He laughed. “I understand. Don’t worry sir, let’s call it the ‘Salem Set’ then,” he said, excited to introduce me to his favourite snack.
We walked out of the hotel, crossed a couple of dusty, busy streets and turned into a small rustic kiosk at the corner of the road. I looked around and saw nothing at the shop – it looked like a very pale version of a bhelpuri kiosk back in Goa. My friend placed the order in Tamil, “Anna, 2 Sets of Thattu Vadai”.
It took some time to be assembled, and I had been drooling for long. So, when our food was ready, I literally pounced on it and grabbed a handful. “Wait, stop! You got hold it properly and pop it in all at once,” said Jayasuriya, noticing I wasn’t doing it right.
He was absolutely correct and that first bite felt like a crack of freshness and fire. It was simply amazing. – crunchy, vibrant, tangy and spicy all in one.
The ‘Salem Set’ is an ensemble of grated vegetables – beetroot, carrot and onion pickled in tangy lemon juice – sandwiched between two crispy deep-fried disks ( made of rice flour, urad dhal and sometimes even channa dal), that are greased with the choicest of local chutneys – the popular ones being the green coriander-mint chutney and the coconut-green chilli chutney.
Such simple ingredients, yet it was a blast of flavour in my mouth. The vendor, seeing me devour the first serving, asked, “Will you have another one? I have six more chutneys!”. What a great pitch, I thought. He’s basically saying I have only tasted 1/6th of the experience and tempting me to try the rest.
I obliged, and the second ‘Salem Set’ with the red chutney made of onion, tomato, ginger, tamarind paste and other condiments was absolutely gob-smacking to my tastebuds. The freshness of the tomato and tangy twist of the tamarind paste in the chutney made you feel like you were eating a whole different dish. You may think it’s just a little snack you munching on, but the generous filling of the vegetables gets you full soon.
“Just like that, you make yourself a part of the Salem family,” said Jayasuriya, asking me to check out the wide smile on the vendors face as he watched me eat, while making my usually weird foodgasmic noises.
“Let me explain why you have blended in. Firstly your illustrative narration of the mother being the arbitrator / mediator / conciliator while deciding on that last orange was a super hit among the local students. Remember, we respect every woman as our mothers or sisters, so you really connected with that story,” Jayasuriya said, distracting me from the Thattu vadai.
I thought I had made many people mad during the day, as I stopped some speakers, either for a correction or clarification., while suggesting to others that they needed to change their posture and pose at the podium. “They didn’t find it rude at all and that was obvious by the 30-min-long photo shoot you had at the end of the day with them,” he laughed. “I’m serious though, the reason why they liked you was even though you were correcting and asking tough questions, you never spoke in Hindi. Not a word.”
That statement reminded me how passionate and patriotic they are about their motherland and their mother-tongue. “We wouldn’t have understood a word if you spoke anything other than English, because I’m sure you don’t want to experiment with your Tamil,” he said with a smile. And just like that, a conversation over a ’Salem Set’ asserted the aspect of cultural and linguistic sensitivity while reaching out to any community. For many Tamils, the language is more than just a cultural thing, it’s spiritual. “As pure Tamils, our language is our God,” Jayasuriya said.
“If you are into hygiene, you can always try making the Thattu Vadai set at home,” said Jayasuriya, coming back to the Thattu vadai snack.
“But, it won’t taste the same as that eaten along the streets of Salem!” I said.
“Then, you got to come back to taste the other chutneys,” he said.