Saturday, March 28, 2009

Maavadu/Vadu Maangai

It starts with people looking up at the sky and ponderously nodding (at nothing in particular). They would then appear rather serious and walk towards their favourite chair. Someone would have to enquire into their deep thought (a lot of life in a family is playing along and rewarding everyone with due cues and consideration) upon which the serious individual would remark, "Hmmm. I think the mango season is here. We must visit Mambalam market before the padis empty." Without exception this scene follows the day when the vegetable vendor or the flower vendor had informed this person about the arrival of mangoes in the market!
Children would always be in awe of this person who is like the mango-Nostradamus. In all likelihood the kids don't know who Nostradamus was but they know what tongue-clicking green mangoes are, especially the ones that fit snugly in their fists. They always try to make the loudest clicks after a bite and suddenly a well populated and poorly guarded house sounds like the stampede of the stiletto brigade. Mangoes herald a lot more than mere taste and lazy afternoons with fistfuls of green gold; it speaks of summer vacations and visiting relatives and pickles. So now you know why mango-Nostradamus is so loved by the children of the house!

If you are wondering, why I haven't rushed into the pickle recipe, then you are probably new to this blog! You should probably thank your stars that I am not discussing browser performance and how Safari 4 is better than the previous version. Yes, you guessed it - this post is written within the frame of Safari 4 though I am always an Opera loyalist (can't help it with over 4000 bookmarks in there).

Maavadu is a popular pickle in South of India. It is debated as to which state should own rights to it, and I have just concluded that good, tasty maavadus belong to me. Simple. To those who think pickles can only be made by Priya, MTR, Bedekar, Ruchi and Mother's Recipe I have only one question to ask: How did the farmer manage to get the whole 250 ml of OJ into that orange ball?

Maavadu is made from whole, small raw mangoes - bonsai mangoes. They are probably the size of the pebbles David used against Goliath or in simpler terms, the size of a malnourished and out-of-shape golf ball. They are small, that's it. How else should I try describing that!? I have always had an issue with describing size. I could be pointlessly accurate in giving you the volume of the mango (314.594 cc) or I can describe them to you. Problem with qualitative description are that most of them depend on the dimension of your organs (easy! I mean palm and mouth and such). E.g.
  1. You could probably hide them in your palm. Issue: What is the size of your palm?
  2. 3 of them would fill your mouth. Issue: What is the size of your mouth. Another issue would be 3 of what!?
  3. If you pierced a moderately ductile needle through 2 of them and bent the metal between them, they should be just large enough to cover your eyes when you do not have the oh-my-god-she-really-did-that? look on your face. Issue: What on earth did she do?
So do understand my helplessness and humour me. These raw mangoes are small, about the same size of the pebbles David used to kill Goliath, measuring 314.594 cc (no, not Goliath!).

These mangoes come in two varieties. One is the rotund ones which are mostly what bounce on your mind's canvas when someone says "small raw mangoes" and the other is like the space between two "S"s, vertically offset and fused at their ends. The latter are called (in Tamil) kili-mooku (which means, parrot's nose or beak, the correlation is probably what the parrot knows! Sorry PJ). Kili-mooku pickles are tasty too but the mangoes are less juicy and more like a badly chewed gum. I like both varieties (and the gross descriptions are purely to discourage you from asking me for samples). Who am I kidding!! I am crazy about both varieties though my personal preference is for more flesh (guys! I am talking about mangoes. Yes, the edible kinds). The reason is that when you nibble at the rotund ones, the ooze with salty nectar which is why they are most loved. Frankly, if the previous line aroused you, it was unplanned!

I believe the best way to prepare maavadu is by recalling all that you did the previous year and how rewarding it had been. Pickles aren't pasta which in turn aren't crunching on a carrot. Pickles take a lot of energy and a lot of time. Results are typically known only in 10-15 days (and my mother snapped at me for demanding a tentative date when they are good to eat: What kind of an idiot would want a deadline for pickles!? They are ready when they are ready!! Now you can thank me for the more accurate descriptions in this blog). Pickles are passed down generations. Actually the recipes are! I learnt the recipe from my mom who learnt it from everyone except her mom and I have no clue where her mom learnt it from!

So this is how the story goes. My mom and dad were traveling in their early days as a couple (and in India, a couple then meant that they were already married). They reached Bombay (where all good things used to happen) and were supposed to stay at a friend's place. This friend was actually my grandfather's friend. They did stay there and my mother learnt her first version of maavadu from the lady of that house (yes, those were times when the ladies of the house knew how to cook!).
Few years later (when yours truly was already born and critiquing the food made at home) back in Bombay there was (I am sure she is no more) a kind lady whom we called "Vembu maami". To my child-mind (which hasn't developed much since then) it sounded irrational why she should be named after the bitter flowers of the Neem tree (in Tamil, those flowers are called Vepampoo and I would in my hurried talk pronounce Vepampoo and Vembu quite alike). I would also imagine her giving my mother the horribly tasting rasam (which we call saaramudu) made with those flowers. So I searched in vain, some bitter facet of that lady whose face I have now forgotten (I do remember their house and her entering the bedroom with the balcony where I was sitting awaiting sweets and pampering).
Vembu maami polished the earlier version of the recipe for my mother. The earlier version was a little saltier and not to everyone's palate. What follows is that version. It will follow, trust me.
Thanks to Lakshmiammal of Cook Food Serve LoveBuying mangoes is an art as good as mango-Nostradamus'. I do all that is necessary to make the merchant believe that I know my business. I smell the little 'uns and roll them in my palm and rub them hard and smell them again and give a hard glance at the basket full of green pebbles (Goliath should have simply opened his mouth) and ask him the price while smelling again. Today he said, "Rs. 20 for a kilo". I looked at him disapprovingly and continued smelling. I asked for a knife. He was shocked and he wanted to lower the price or do anything that I wanted. I smelled the mango as if it were a rose (and I a Shah Jehan buying veggies).
"Get me a knife."
He complied but stood his distance. I asked him to place the knife down as one doesn't hand the knife from one's hands to the other (it makes enemies of such folks, or so the belief goes). He carefully placed it in the empty basket without taking his eyes off me. I whipped the blade out and cut a sliver (actually, more than that). Holding it between blade and thumb I dropped it in my mouth. One bite and I was dying to click my tongue, but they were watching. I slowly nodded and asked him (yes, the bewildered one), "How many padis in a kilo?" For the uninitiated, padi is a measure which isn't standardised by the BIPM (and it never will be). Padi is pronounced puh-dee like maavadu is pronounced maa-va-du :-D
The poor guy thought I was from some arcane society out to mark him for trading in mangoes or something, because he swore an apology for not knowing what a padi was. I kicked myself for listening to my mom (well, she's twice my age and belongs to the era where an anna made sense) and asking him what she had asked me to ask him. He turned around and asked the majordomo. The latter clarified that they sell by the kilo. I said that I knew that but how many padis would there by in a kilo or conversely (and I actually said "conversely" in English because my Tamil or their Tamil wasn't good enough to handle "conversely" in Tamil). He said he didn't know so I smelled the mango again before instructing Mr. Scared Pants to give me 2 kilos. All the while I prayed that my mother doesn't kill me for picking mangoes unworthy of a pickle. I picked the pebbles myself and ensured that they were nearly all the same size (yes, 314.594 cc).
As I said, purchasing mangoes for maavadu is quite an ordeal. To the cynical few, all of the above could be accomplished within two minutes: Reach the shop, touch a few of the round ones (mangoes, guys), ask for price, buy two kilos, get back home and be scolded anyway! How boring! I am sure these are the same folks who wonder "Why isn't he giving us the recipe yet!?" God!
The funny thing with the market is that mangoes with about an inch or two of stalk are priced at 70-80 which doesn't make sense. Nobody uses the stalks for anything beside garbage weight, so why the higher price? The storekeepers were dutifully questioned to which they replied, "Because they have stalks!" Now you know!

The mangoes should be washed well and allowed to dry naturally on a dry cloth. I added naturally because I don't wish to field questions like "On a drying bed?", "On a desiccator?". Naturally, under the ceiling fan, if you must, on a dry piece of cloth. Ensure that there is atleast a stub of stalk left on each mango. Oh! BTW, I passed the mango buying test. Of course, I knew very well how to buy the right mangoes, and...

Once they are fairly dry, here is how your proceed (oh! yes, the recipe indeed):

For 10 Kg of mango, use 1 Kg of crystalline salt (that is white salt in sizes bigger than table salt but not bigger than the biggest gem you own. If you have really big gems, what are you doing reading this blog!? See? Same problem with describing sizes), 1 Kg red chili powder, 0.5 Kg mustard powder (not Dijon) and about 10-12 tbsp castor oil and about 2-3 tbsp turmeric powder. There are different ways to prepare this and I am giving you how my mother does it before getting into variations (some of them untested). Since you are never ever going to try with 10 Kg. let me talk in smaller measures. For about 2 Kg. of mangoes, use 200 gms of salt, 200 gms of red chili powder a little over 100 gms of mustard powder and about 2 tbsp of castor oil and turmeric powder by experience! Mom adds the mangoes into a large vessel and then gradually adds salt, tossing and turning the mangoes around (never ever use your bare hands as it might spoil the mangoes). Once that is done, in goes the chili powder with pauses and tosses and turns. Then follow mustard powder, castor oil and turmeric powder. All the while the mangoes should be tossed and turned to evenly coat the mangoes with the powders. Please rest assured that this current state of the mangoes is not how things are going to be in the days to come. I shall try to explain how.

Before I embark on that, a couple of points to note. As mentioned, never use your bare hands (though in India nearly everything is done with bare hands, pickles are an exception). Something about your perspiration or glandular secretions spoils the mangoes. Secondly, table salt is never used for pickles. My mother blames it on the iodine. I am merely quoting and following so I too shall blame iodine. Down with iodine! Thirdly, never let the pickles rest in a metal or wooden container. The latter will absorb all the water (oh! there will be lots of that) and the former will get corroded. Please remember these.

The typical container used for pickles is the Kerala Jaadi (as we call it) or the Bharani jars. These are beautiful jars made of porcelain in dual tone and are very very good for containing pickles. These have been in use for at least several decades if not a few centuries (and I exaggerate). One could also use glass jars but then the mystery of maavadu is lost. You will get to see the water collect and the mangoes soften and all the wonderful things that are best left as a mystery. So let's all use the Bharani jars. They come in various shapes and sizes and are quite aesthetic too. Thanks to Indira of Mahanadi

Once the pickle-amateur has been transferred to the jars, cover the mouth with a clean, dry cotton cloth and fix the lid tightly. I wouldn't recommend using plastic or anything synthetic. Leave this aside. Every day for the next 10-15 days (or as the high priestess says, "Deadlines!?") one must open the jar and mix the contents properly with a spoon/spatula. Cover with the cloth and fix the lid tightly. Do not forget the last bit (no, the eating come later). After about a week or so, it is recommended to taste the pickle. Only the experienced tongue knows the exact state of pickleness and can gauge the number of days left for pickling. It can, and I assure you, will vary.

There will be water (as God said to Adam when Eve broke her nail and was about to burst out crying). Osmosis assures you that the moisture content of the mangoes will be released. The salt attracts moisture too. All of this and the magic of maavadu assures you a lot of water. Soon your pickle will no longer remotely resemble the dry stuff you put into the jar on Day 1.

There are variations (as God said to Adam when he didn't understand what Eve meant when she said that she didn't want the parrot-green fig leaf but the teal fig-leaf as was shown on the Vogue magazine cover). Some prefer to add a bit of boiled and cooled water to the initial mixture. This creates more "gravy" which allows for mixing with rice. Some maavadus are not mustard based. Some people mix all the powders together and then pour it over the mangoes (like it matters). Some people make an even paste and "gravy" of the powders. Some people use fenugreek powder. Some people buy Mother's Recipe Vadu Maangai (oh! btw, maavadu and vadu maangai are the same but maintained distinct to confuse the tourist who lands in Madras). The latter category of people are ignored until when they offer some of their purchase. You take it and ignore them again till you are tired of ignoring them.

Thanks to Annita of My Treasure...My PleasureMaavadu is best eaten. With what? Anything or nothing. It is an ideal accompaniment for curd rice (with mustard seeds, and grated carrots and pomegranate seeds and fried urad dal and curry leaves and red chillies and... damn! Now I simply have to eat it!!) but goes well with rava upma and many other dishes. Enjoy!

I just realised that I need to beg some other bloggers for pictures of mangoes, pickles and the bharani jars. Mom simply refused to let me take pictures. Reason: The pickles will get spoilt if pictures are taken (it is some interesting combination of the evil-eye, photosensitive mangoes, her touch and a few other phenomena that are best not discussed).


  1. Parvati5:45 PM

    Perfect. Delightful. Verily, an amazing piece of writing, independent of the choice of subject. It is comprehensive, complete, beautiful and truly well-written.

    And the choice of topic is of course ideal for nostalgic summers that I spent my childhood in Madras.

    Keep it up! Write more gold nuggets like this. You should get this published somewhere or the other.

  2. wow.. really enticing recipe.
    wish i was in chennai right now to do justice to all the maavadu and the delicious banganapallis. kind of got nostalgic seeing the maavadu,the maavadu oorgai jars of course and all the stuff we did as kids..
    keep up the great work dude:)


  3. Dear P1,
    Thank you. Glad you found it so... :-)

    Dear P2,
    Welcome to this blog. What a coincidence! Two commenters both with names starting with "P" and both not in Chennai!! Thanks a lot for your kind words... :-)

  4. Lovely post...redolent of my memories in Madras when I was a little kid...sitting near my grandma making pickles and vadu maanga and vadams....lazy summer afternoons....breezes, comic books, playing with cousins...wish i cd get back there this minute!!!


  5. love your bharanis...