The Salem Set, have you tried it yet?

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.

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The real deal: Salem’s crunchy and fresh Thattu Vadai Set

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.

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Kashmir ki Kahwah

By Jonathan Rodrigues 

An elderly driver picked us from the airport and drove us through the streets of the city. I tried capturing a few pictures as he raced past the beautiful landscape. He apologized when I asked him to slow down but suggested that my eyes do the clicking instead of the camera lens. I heeded his advice, put my camera away and snuck my head out of the window for some fresh air. He popped up his wrinkled face in the rearview mirror of the Jeep and smiled in approval.

Now, in the heart of Srinagar, with the temperature hovering around single digits, and the brewed coffee beans from a commercial café kiosk failing to keep us warm, we waited to meet our friends from the valley at the guest house of Kashmir University. Their giant embraces and smiling faces did make us feel better, but it was not until we sipped some steaming ‘kahwah’ that we finally  had our first taste of Kashmir.

Kahwah –  This drink (Kashmiris don’t call it tea) is so magical that it nominates itself to be shortlisted for the tag of the official “dialogue drink” for any peacekeeping, mediation or conflict resolution event. Made by boiling special Kashmiri green tea leaves with saffron strands, cinnamon bark and cardamom pods, it is often served with sugar or honey and crushed nuts, usually almonds or walnuts. Besides other health benefits, it serves as an antioxidant and energy booster. “Your biggest worries get dissolved, it calms you down and then cheers you up,” said the kitchen help at the guest house, who watched in awe as we gulped down multiple cups of freshly-brewed hospitality.

We invited him to sit down and join us for a cup of Kahwah – an offer he initially refused, but later agreed. He was wearing his traditional pehran and a faded karakul (hat).

“How do you like it so far?” he asked.

“This drink is brilliant – It’s so smooth and refreshing,” I said.

“You are most welcome. But… I was referring to Kashmir,” he clarified.

“It’s been just a couple of hours, but yes, I already love it,” I replied.

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The majestic mountains overlooking the Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir

I told him what I saw and how it made me feel. I saw small cozy houses and I wished I had one of those for a weekend holiday. I saw greenery and tasted fresh air and I imagined what it would be to live here. I saw eyes, a few that looked straight through me and others that shied away from meeting my glance, and I wished I could just get to know the secrets they hold.  I saw little school kids in uniforms, holding hands and crossing the road and I wished I could be like them again and wave at strangers with all innocence and joy. And as I neared the guest house, I felt the calmness of the Dal Lake enveloping the city and the majestic snow-capped mountain ranges hugging its people in a blanket of safety, together painting a panorama of heaven.

“You saw what you could see. There is more to Kashmir than what meets the tourist’s eye. You didn’t see broken homes, destroyed houses, scared faces, teary eyes, the army with pellets, the militants with guns, the civilians with stones. It’s the dark side, and just like every rose has its thorns, we have ours. It’s been a tough winter, but summer is here, and you are here… so have some more Kahwah,” he said, breaking into a shallow laughter, pouring himself another cup of the aromatic fitness drink and collecting himself from the brief emotional episode.

I was envious of now neat his beard was and asked him if he trimmed it himself. “Yes, of course, I can teach if you want to. Allah has given us good looks and Kahwah helps us maintain the gifts,” he grinned, sipping his drink. He said it improves one’s complexion and also helps in digestion, thus keeping the people fit and healthy.

“I made this drink from the ready-made powder,” he admitted modestly, “If you travel to the Tulip gardens tomorrow, you will find a man preparing it in a traditional samovar (copper kettle). It will be tastier, and he might even add extra saffron for you since you have come from far and with good intentions.”

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I found the man preparing Kahwah in the Samovar at the Tulip gardens

I thanked him for his generosity and honesty and excused myself for the evening.

He heard me cough on my out of the dining room.

“The Kahwah will heal that cough, inshallah. If not, I shall add some milk to your drink tomorrow,” he said, with confidence that no doctor could match.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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