Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ambode or Chattambode or Masala vade - memories of a small store from my home town

I missed talking to you all for the last 2 weeks, didn't mean to go away for this long but getting adjusted to the new changes in life (and ofcourse the ever present laziness) took longer than anticipated. I think I have things in a flow now and ready to resume my blogging more frequently than I have done in the recent past :-), wish me luck and stay with me as I bring you new and old stories and recipes.

Something new for today - I am settled (as well as anyone can be in 2 weeks) at my new job, loving it. I like my team, the work, office and everything else from what I have seen so far. The commute is not as romantic as I thought it would be - the bus is crowded and I do have to stand sometimes depending on the time but it is not bad really. I am getting some great outdoor walking as part of commute which makes me totally thrilled, and Seattle was at its weather best behavior the first week I started working, completely dry and sunny and looked gorgeous. Last week was wet and windy but I survived so I do believe I am a pro as far as the weather goes. It can only improve now that we 'Spring forwarded' an hour last night (boo hoo, lost a whole 60 minutes, who ever thought of these time changes in the first place????) and Spring will be here in reality very soon :-). My family has been amazing as they always are and we have struck some balance with the chaos that defines the morning and I am feeling less and less guilty leaving them early in the morning.

Something old and classic :-) - here is a totally addictive, sinfully delicious, crispy, snack which according to me is one of the greatest recipes of all time. Ambode/chattambode as they are called in our home or masala vade as they are referred to in restaurants are one of the snacks that you cannot stop eating anytime soon once you pop one in the mouth. Having said that, let me also tell you that not all ambodes are same or equally delicious, so if you happen to eat an ambode that tastes like cardboard (it happens and I have tasted them), the blame is not on the dish but on the cook who made it. Don't form an opinion against ambode based on an unfortunate tasting, try finding someone that makes good ambodes and then decide :-)
Nammamma made some of the best ambodes I have ever tasted. Her ambodes are perfect in size, shape, texture and taste -  crunchy on the outside (and stay like that even when they are cold) and soft and meaty on the inside, a few tricks to follow to achieve that deliciousness and I have shared all of them below so you can make them yourselves. Other than nammamma's ambode, I really, really loved those she got from 'Bhattara angadi' (Bhatta's store). Now that I have possibly piqued your interest, it won't be fair to not tell you the who, where, what and how of the Bhattara angadi, right? here we go to walk down a memory lane a few years (or many years) back..

Repeating myself (for the nth time), eating out was not a frequent happening in our childhood, restaurants were alien and eating from the road side vendors was forbidden for health reasons. There was once in a blue moon kind of Iyengar bakery treats that would give us a taste of outside food. I really don't miss not eating out so much because we had such great food at home. In addition to the Iyengar bakery, there was another tiny shop that was 'parent certified' and that was called 'Bhattara angadi'. The owner's last name was Bhat, he was from Mangalore region and was a Yakshagana artist. I do not know what circumstances made him stop pursuing the art form and set up a small store selling hot idlis in the morning and super yummy deep fried delicacies in the evening. Whatever they were, I am grateful he did it because that is where I have had some of the best tasting ambodes, benne muruku, khara mixture and Mysore paks and Jahangirs (Jangris) and I can still salivate just thinking about them.

Bhatru was a big man physically and would sit there in the store very imposingly making all the goodies while the crowd gathered up and waited patiently just outside in the warmth of the big stove. He would have trays of sweets ready by the time he opened the store in the evening along with the raw materials needed for the savory items. A mega size circular pan (called bandle in kannada) would be set on the big stove and filled 3/4 with oil. Once the oil heated up, he would start the savories - one batch of ambode in that huge pan would serve up 50-70 ambodes and would satisfy 4-5 customers in the front of the line. As you moved up the line, you would be hoping that you will get your turn with the next batch :-). On the days we accompanied nammamma to the temple and then the store, me and kid brother used to kill time standing in the line either by guessing what part he was playing in each of the Yakshagana pictures framed on the darkened, oil smitten walls of that store or take guesses at what he would make in the next batch because that got determined largely by the demand of the customers in the line. If a bunch of people said, "Bhatre, khara mixture idya? (do you have khara mixture)', he will make a batch of khara mixture while the ambode customers had to wait their turn. For us, mythology bug bitten kids he was King Nala in flesh & blood as we tried to map his royal costumes in the pictures to his extraordinary culinary expertise, he never talked about his past (I don't even know if he was still doing Yakshagana at the time), the only clue to it being those slightly faded pictures on the walls.
As soon as he takes out a batch from the hot oil and sets it out on the side, he will start packing up the orders in individual paper cones (yep, no plastic covers and old news papers would be put to work). He knew exactly when to stop and turn the stuff in the pan without missing a beat in all that noisy crowd. If you went looking for more than one item, he would either ask you to step aside and wait until your order was ready or would pack them from a previous batch, but there never would be any excess for too long. He threw in some finely chopped green chilies into the ambode mixture and you would occasionally and unexpectedly bite into a fried chili piece that brought tears to the eyes but never stopped eating them.

There was a temple right next door to the store and nammamma went there regularly as she went for her vegetable shopping in the evening. We had the uncanny ability to guess when she would come back with a couple of packets of ambode or chow chow mix or benne muruku or something else. Cold, rainy evenings were ideal as were days on which amma had been too busy and not made any snack in the evening which meant we would wait with bated breath until she came inside, set the wire basket filled with vegetables to the side and sat down. Olfactory organs would have already done their job and figured out the existence of a snack somewhere in that basket but we still had to behave and wait for her to open up the basket, ah those torturous few minutes :-) seemed to never end. Once the packet was out of the basket, we would all get our shares of the warm ambodes (or whatever else she had brought that day) and sit and savor them slowly. Power cuts and rooms lighted only with small candles set the perfect ambiance giving a legitimate excuse for not sitting infront of the books and made the experience so much more cozier :-). Some years later, when I was in college or later, nammamma mentioned that bhattaru had passed on :-(. I haven't been to that store in ages now and wonder how it is doing with the next generation or even if it is in existence at all.. Like all things I remember from my Mysore days, this is part of my life, a very fond memory, never to be forgotten..
The ambodes from this store were not round and slightly flattened like my amma's but were small random bits. He would take a handful (his big handful) of the mixture and drop small bits into the hot oil going all around the pan. Perfect little marble sized ambodes with each one having just the right amount of cilantro, onion and the spices, nothing beats experience..

When I make ambode at home, I make them in the shape nammamma made but just because I was going to tell you all about my favorite store from childhood, I made some in the shape bhattaru made for the pictures :-). A fair warning that my pictures are not great today as I made these for a group of people and had been cooking lot of other things along side and was distracted. Next time, I will take some better pictures and post them :-)
What do you need to make Ambode? 
1 cup chana dal/kadle bele
1/4 cup grated coconut
4-6 green chilies (adjust to taste)
1 inch piece of fresh ginger
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1.5 Tsp salt (adjust to taste)
oil to deep fry (use any of the following oils with high temperature tolerance - peanut oil, saffola/sunflower, vegetable oil. Do not heat olive oil to high temperatures)

How do you make Ambode? 
  • Pick, wash and soak the chana dal in plenty of water for about 2.5-3 hours or until they soften. 
  • Prepare the rest of the ingredients in the mean time and keep them ready. 
  • Rinse and drain water from the soaked chana dal. 
  • Make a paste of green chilies and ginger. 
  • Grind the soaked dal (without using any water - see notes below) into a coarse texture. 
  • Mix all ingredients together. 
  • If you hold a fistful of the mixture together and press it lightly, it should retain its shape without breaking apart. If you have ground the dal too coarsely, this will not be possible. 
  • Heat oil in a wide pan, once you feel it is hot enough (I don't own a thermometer, so can't tell you the temperature), test by dropping a small amount of the mixture into the oil. If it sizzles and comes up right away, you are ready to deep fry the ambode. If the mixture sinks and stays at the bottom of the pan, you need to heat the oil further. 
  • Take a lime sized mixture in hand, press gently into a ball and flatten it slightly. Lower the flattened disc into the hot oil. 
  • Add as many ambode into the frying pan as it can hold in a single layer without touching each other or piling on top of each other. 
  • Keep the heat on medium and let them cook for a minute and half. 
  • With a slotted spoon, gently turn them over to the other side and let them cook until both sides are golden brown. 
  • Take them out onto a paper tissue lined plate with a slotted spoon, draining all the oil out. 
  • Serve them (see suggestions below) hot/warm/cold. Enjoy one of the most delicious snacks in the entire world, a plate of ambode is equivalent to ultimate happiness for snack crazy people like me :-)

How do we eat Ambode at home :-) - Just like anything else, it is put into the mouth and go chomp, chomp, chomp. Well, that is not what I met. Ambodes are served in a few different ways depending on the time of eating, here are some of my favorites. 
  • If you make it for a snack, enjoy it with a cuppa and some coconut chutney on the side - super yummy combination. 
  • Bisi bele Bhath (I know I haven't posted it yet, will do soon) and ambode is considered a classic combo in many Kannadiga homes. 
  • My father loved to soak ambode in either saaru or majjige huli, after a couple of hours, it would have soaked up the juices and tastes heavenly. 
  • If you have a sweet tooth, ambode and gasagase payasa (favorite combo on Ganesha habba) is great too, dip a piece of ambode in hot/warm gasagase payasa and put it in your mouth, it is like an explosion of sweet and spicy tastes in the mouth. Avoid adding onion if you are planning on this combo. 
  • Trick to get the best tasting ambode ever is to make sure the dal is ground correctly, NO WATER is the mantra while grinding which makes it hard for most electrical mixers. Let the dal soak in water until you are ready to grind, only then drain the water, this allows the dal to be wet without dripping and helps to grind easily. 
  • Do not over soak the dal, this makes the ambode absorb a lot of water. 2.5-3 hours is sufficient to get them to soak up and soften. 
  • When you grind, do not make it into a paste. The ground dal should be coarse and stay together when you take a fistful and form a ball without breaking out. 
  • Ambodes are crispy and crunchy when you bite in and the inside should be soft, make sure you do not flatten them out thin, this makes them hard. 
  • While frying the ambode, keep the heat on medium so it cooks all through and turn and flip minimally, let them cook on their without much mixing. 
  • If you had to use a few spoons of water to make your blender work and the dough becomes soft/watery, add a Tbsp of gram flour to get the consistency. 
  • A time saving tip is to make the balls and keep them ready, that way you just press them a little to flatten and drop them in oil.
  • When nammamma makes these on festival days, onion is not used. 
  • Use red chilies instead of green ones for a slightly different flavor, remember to soak dry red chilies along with the dal to soften them. 
  • I have seen fennel seeds used (while grinding or directly mixed in) in some recipes which adds a different flavor though this is not my personal favorite for ambode.
  • You can add chopped curry leaves instead (or in addition to) chopped cilantro. 
  • Finely chopped dill leaves or mint leaves is a favorite addition to ambode in Karnataka.  Don't mix the two together in the same batch though. 


Kaveri Venkatesh said...

Glad to know that you are settled in your new job...Lovely detailed post..loved reading it.
My hubby likes vadas dunked in Rasam or Mor kuzhambu.
Never added coconut to the vadas..will try sometime..your vadas look delicious

NamsVeni Pothas said...

wow..nice crunchy mouth watering ambode really very tempting.

Sreemala said...

Thanks for yet another all time favorite recipe Nagashree. I still remember the yummy ones you had made and it's combo with saaru that my appa thoroughly enjoyed in your home here.
BTW, the baked nippattu came out very good, will send the pics soon.

Kannada Cuisine said...

Good luck with your new job!
Ambode looks delish! We all knew one or the other Bhattara angadi, and their famous goodies..loved your story reminds me of the Bhattara angadi I knew :)

Priya Suresh said...

My best wishes for your new Job Nagashree. Btw Bhattara angadi story reminds me our grandma's village shop where they sells vadas and bajjis. Nostalgic moments na..

Crispy ambodes are just tempting to munch some.

Nagashree said...

Thank you all for your lovely comments and best wishes:-)

Mala - that is so sweet of you to remember, I always think about the day Mama came home for lunch with fondness. Hope to see you guys soon here.

Smitha - I am sure you knew a few bhattara angadi, does Ramalingeshwara temple mean anything to you in Mysore? This was next to it.