Sunday, October 23, 2016

Puri Unde - Nammamma's signature dish, handcrafted with love

My last post was sometime in August and here we are in October. A season changed on us, trees are now ablaze in the Autumn colors and it looks pretty all over. I am an 'Autumn' lover as I have said so many times in the past but somehow it hasn't been easy to enjoy the colors and the beauty this time as much as I have in the past. Someone said, "Autumn teaches you how beautiful it is to let go", and the same autumn is making it harder for me to let go..This blog, the readers, friends that have become and visitors are all very close to me and I want to share that I lost my mother a month back. Nothing in the world prepares you for a loss like this, it just comes and hits you smack in the face. With her gone, it feels like the roots of life are gone and a scary realization that it is me and my generation that are the roots for the younger ones.

I have heard every reaction from, "How old was your mom?" to "were you close to your mom?" to "Sorry about your loss" from friends, acquaintances and family in the last 30+days. Does it matter how old she was? Does it matter where I am in my life? Hard truth is, amma is irreplaceable, period. Was I close to her? yes, I was, she was all we had after my father passed on 15 years back and we hung on to her for double duty. She delivered both roles with much love, grace and aplomb until her last breath with no demands of hers ever slowing down our busy lives. Now that she is gone, it feels like my 'room to grow up' has vanished suddenly, definitively and completely.
What I saw and realized in the last month is that I am surrounded by generous people - family, friends, colleagues, strangers that have put a shield of love and care that is beyond I could have ever imagined, one I could have only hoped for. In addition to people that know us, people who hardly knew nammamma and people who hardly know me have both come forward to say a kind word, a prayer, a blessing that has made the pain bearable. For that, I am most grateful. Hope I will have the kindness, love and generosity to pass this on and share with others.

She left on a Monday of the week and the following Wednesday (Sep 21) was the official world Alzheimer's day. I sat there stupified looking at all the information coming to me on the topic that entire week and not even able to appreciate the irony of it all. Here was the world trying to raise awareness on Alzheimers and Dementia and we as a family were mourning the loss of a mother who suffered through that same diagnosis for close to 3 years. It stripped her off of her impeccable 'memory' (nammamma never forgot a person, a name, a picture or a place that she had seen and could recite pages of poems and stories that she had read in her childhood without any help) and reduced the strong person that we knew to someone helpless and lost at times in the last 3 years. The single most painful thought for me since her diagnosis has been about how many lucid moments would she have and how much will she remember about herself and the rich life she had led until that point? I don't know the answer to that question and I always hoped with all my might that she was granted the loveliest of her memories in those moments.
She remained courageous and a fighter until her last and taught us that no matter what life dishes out, we can still handle it with dignity if we made up our minds. Love you amma.

I hid behind work (there was plenty to do) for the last month and didn't give myself time to sit or think. But I realize that kind of escapism is not going to do any good and have decided to instead remember her with my actions, routines as part of celebrating the dear soul. I do want to get back to what makes me happy and this blog is one of them. Nammamma was very proud when I started this, she didn't understand what a blog was at that time and was not a tech savvy person to explore it on her own, she would love to have me read different posts and the stories behind the recipes when we were together. She would also tell me additional nostalgia moments that I had missed or omitted from putting up publicly on the blog and we would laugh at those memories together. She had a long and rich life with many moments of pure joy, raw pain and everything in-between. She loved to read and instilled that love in all of us from a young age. She appreciated good music and always encouraged all of us to explore our own interests with the arts. She was not someone that enjoyed cooking like I do, but her food never even gave a hint of that. She cooked with her heart and made dishes that are beyond comparison for me. She loved to feed people, one striking memory I have of her is sitting down in our big kitchen back in Mysuru and cooking, she would have no qualms about making tens of akki rottis or huge vessels of uppittu or grind number of coconuts for the obbattu as long as there were people to eat and enjoy. I always wondered if she cooked because she enjoyed feeding people rather than the act of cooking itself.
I do not want this to be all about loss, pain or hurt, I like to think she is in a happier place with all her memory intact and keeps on looking over us. I would rather it is around celebrating her memories, the ones that we built together. I am going to present some of her signature dishes for a week from today (from mundane to exotic, plain comfort food that makes you think of home, from sweet to spicy) that I loved every time she made it. This is my small effort at showing gratitude to a lovely human being I had the good fortune to call 'amma'.

I am going to start with Puri Unde (Balls made with puffed poha and jaggery). I am not sure how many house holds still make this at home, it is one of those old world delicacies that is getting lost with that generation. This used to be a frequent summer snack of childhood and also made during Navaratri as part of the gombe arati. Nammamma would make a hundred or so (yep, we were hungry kids :-)) as it stays well for a couple of weeks and used to get shared generously with all the monkeys (aka the elementary school kids) that would spend long summer afternoons in our big yard. My little brother would stuff his pants pockets with a few undes before he dashed out of the front door always.
This was also one of the dishes that nammamma recruited us kids as part of the task force. And we were glad to be called into the kitchen and be part of the process from start to finish. Who wouldn't want to start eating the crisp, bland puri with pieces of coconut and graduate to dipping fingers into the warm, sweet jaggery syrup as it was poured on the mixture, and get blissful eating handfuls of sweet mixture even before the unde could be constructed? The gas stove would come down from the platform and we would all sit around with a small plate of rice flour and a tiny bowl of water each.

The process is not tedious but one needs to be very attentive. Split seconds matter for the puri unde to turn out just perfect or become a tasty but shapeless mixture :-). It is all in the paaka (or the jaggery syrup) consistency you see!!. So nammamma would have already chopped tiny pieces of the dry coconut (kobbari), dry roasted, skinned and halved the peanuts, picked any dirt from the roasted chana, grated the jaggery and keep it ready for the syrup and warmed up the puri itself in the hot sun to make it crispy. We thought nothing of all this time consuming prep work on such a large scale because she made it look all effortless. We went into the kitchen when the real action was about to start and had eyes on how much we could gobble up while sitting there :-).
Nammamma would start the syrup, jaggery invariably contains dirt and sandy particles that need to be removed. So the first step is to boil the jaggery, let it melt and strain it with a fine cloth or a sieve to get a clear liquid. She would do this for the multiple Kgs of jaggery and keep that clear liquid ready. Then she would mix all the dry ingredients in a big vessel. Due to the peanut, kobbari being heavier, they tend to get to the bottom of the vessel and settle there, if you are not alert and keep them mixed evenly, when you make the unde there will not be any homegeneous spread, some unde will have only puri while some may have a lot of kobbari or peanuts, and that is a no-no. So we did have a responsibility to make sure the mixture stayed well mixed always and ready for the the syrup. This was the opportunity to put handfuls of mixture into the mouth even before the syrup was poured in.

The syrup making takes some time, a long time infact when you do it in large scales that nammamma did. She would keep checking for the consistency and as it got closer, she would say, "Ok, innenu aaytu (almost done)" as a note to be alert and ready. And when she was ready to pour the syrup, she would say, "kai tegeeri, (take out your hands)" so we could stop eating the mixture for a while and save our tiny hands from the hot syrup. She would hold the hot vessel and deftly pour the syrup on top of the mixture before returning the syrup vessel back to the stove for next batch. We were still not supposed to touch the mixture and here is where family comes together. Anna would hold a spoon and mix the syrup evenly, take a small orange sized mixture and make the first round form. He wouldn't press but would just give it a shape to hold. We would dip the tiny hands in the rice flour and hold them expectantly to anna, he would drop the loose ball in it and it was upto the tiny hands to work and make a firm, round ball from that mixture before placing it unwillingly into the big plate holding all the puri unde. The process repeated until all the mixture soaked in the syrup was made into balls but it lasted only a few minutes. If the mixture cools down completely, you wont be able to make the balls so everyone had to move with speed and accuracy. Before the next batch started, anna would scrape down the big paraata (a steel vessel with deep edges) with a steel spoon and give us all the sweet, crumbly mixture to eat :-) which was the primary reason we went in there as helpful elves.

I remember doing this year after year for many years. As you got older, you would be graduated to handle the mixing of hot syrup as well. When I make it, it is not even a fraction of the quantity nammamma made but the process is same and the excitement similar. For me, it is as if a piece of Mysuru kitchen has traveled with me.

What do you need for making puri unde?
Makes about 12 small orange sized puri unde
3 cups of avalakki puri (this is not the same puffed rice used for churmuri, see notes below for details)
2 packed cups of grated jaggery
1/4 cup small pieces of dry coconut
1/4 cup roasted chana/kadle
1/4 cup roasted, shelled peanuts
1/2 cup water
1/8 Tsp cardamom powder (optional)
1 Tbsp rice flour (to dip your hands while making unde)

How do you make puri unde?
Prep steps (all of this can be done previous day if you want not do a marathon and gain some time):
  • Roast peanuts on a low heat without any oil until the nuts get a brown spots on the skin and start to splutter
  • Remove them from the stove, let cool and remove the outer skin (see notes for tips to remove skin)
  • Check roasted chana for any dirt and pick them out. 
  • Slice dry coconut into thin strips and chop them into small pieces. 
  • Grate or pound jaggery in a mortar and pestle, keep the powder ready. 
  • In a dry skillet, on a very low heat, warm the puri for 2-4 minutes or until they turn crisp. Stir continuously to avoid burning. 
  • Take a wide plate (with edges), add all the dry ingredients and mix them uniformly. 
Making of puri unde: 
  • Add 1/2 cup of water to a thick bottom pan, add powdered jaggery and let it melt on medium high heat. 
  • Once all the jaggery has melted, take it off the stove and strain using a sieve or a clean, thin white cloth to get a clear liquid. This is important to remove any dirt particles usually found in jaggery. 
  • Rinse the pan, pour the clear liquid back into it and return to the stove. 
  • On a low heat, keep stirring the syrup until it gets a thread consistency. See notes for tips on how to check for the syrup consistency. 
  • Once the syrup is ready, add cardamom powder if using, switch off the stove and pour it over the dry mixture in the plate. 
  • Mix everything together with a sturdy spoon so it comes together in a lump.
  • While the mixture is still hot, dip your palms into the rice flour (this prevents the heat from touching your skin directly) or into cold water, pinch off a portion of the mixture and using both hands, give it the shape of a ball. 
  • Set aside and working quickly, make balls out of the remaining mixture. 
  • How to remove roasted peanut skin - roast peanuts on a slow and low heat for best results. Once cool, put them in between 2 layers of a kitchen towel and rub the top layer gently to peel off the skin. pick the skinned peanuts and use them in the recipe. You can also put the peanuts in a ziplock bag and do the same thing. 
  • How to get the right consistency of the paaka (syrup): It is essentially a thread consistency. For the quantity above, it took me 15 minutes to get to the right consistency. Keep a bowl of water next to the stove. When you lift your spoon above the syrup, the drops tend to get back to the spoon in a thin, flimsy thread. put a drop of this syrup in the bowl of water, if it spreads immediately and dissolves in the water, you have ways to go. If the syrup drop stays in one place and after a second, you can scoop it up with your fingers into a soft ball, then you are ready to move :-)
  • Difference in the puri: Nammamma (and most Kannadiga homes) made this puri unde with a special puri called avalakki puri. This is made with poha unlike the one made with rice. The texture is different and it looks more 'ridgier' than smooth. I have seen folks from Tamil nadu making puri urundai with the regular puri, if you don't have easy access to avalakki puri, go ahead and use the regular puffed rice. The one on the right is what I use for this recipe, the one on left is used for all snacks like churmuri. The packet had the name as 'Bhajke Poha' or 'Puffed poha'.
  • Keep a handful of mixture in a separate plate and use that as your 'trial gunea pig' to test the syrup consistency. Put the syrup on this plate and try to make the balls, if it is coming easily, you can do the rest of it. Remember that you need to work quickly. 
  • If you have good, hot sun, spread the puri on a clean plate in single layer and let it crisp up naturally for 30-45 mins. If not, use the stove top method above. It is important to start with crispy puri so the final product is juicy and crispy, otherwise you will end up with 'hard on the teeth' kind of puri unde :-)
  • Make small quantities to start with until you feel comfortable with the consistency and the process. Always, ask for a second pair of hands in the kitchen, it is fun and makes it all easier :-)
  • I lost my syrup consistency the first time around as I was getting excited about taking pictures for the blog :-), but this is easier to rectify as all you have to do is to add a couple spoons of water and return the vessel back to the stove and stir until the syrup gets the consistency again. So no harm done. 


Anonymous said...

I'm a long time silent reader of your blog...So sorry for your loss, losing a parent is always very hard, our prayers are with you and your family.

Sreemala said...

Dear Nagashree, my eyes welled up as I read thru the blog. I can relate to every word and feeling you've explicitly put in words. I've always adored your immense strength and the way you manage to deal with life's challenges.
Although I've helped but never attempted to make it here, thank you for this detailed, step by step recipe which gives me some idea and confidence to try our all time favorite Puri unde!

gayathri said...

Shall I call it shraddhanjali or puriunde prepared with a lot of shraddha and preethi offered to the great lady who brought us through?

Nagashree Ravi said...

@CSM - Thank you!
@Mala - Thanks! en helali ninge?
@Gayathri - Doesn't matter what you call it as long as it reaches the destination, alwa?

sashi said...

reminds me of my grandma in mysore. You could sense the excitement in the air the moment the puri vendor come home with different types of puri. Then the outhouse kitchen would be cleaned and the coal stove(Ijjalu) would be ready. Also peanuts had to be roasted, koobari to be cut and puri to be cleaned. Only trusted helpers were allowed in the kitchen as she couldn't afford any delay and the paaka had to be poured at the right moment. A slight delay would mean Baatas which we kids would relish. We would be eagerly standing outside the kitchen window watching the artist at work(even though we didn't think like that at that time). As soon as the paaka poured, it had to be rolled and if lucky there would be some remainder puri that could be rolled into a small ball. Any kids around would be the recipients of that one. After all done, it would go into one of those tin containers in the pantry and locked.
Passing away of elders is not just the physical absence. Its a loss of a gamut of emotions, memory,history, knowledge, love and affection, which I guess is the root cause for that unexplained pain and that feeling of a gaping hole in your heart. Take care and please keep sharing.

Nagashree Ravi said...

@Sashi - Thank you! Love to read about your ajji mane experiences, best summer memories are made during those school vacations, right? Tin dabba - we called it akki dabba because it usually was used for storing rice but also doubled up as hiding places for goodies :-). The fun always gets multiplied when it is done in company, that is the part I miss here..