Slipping through my fingers all the time...
Hearing this Classic ballad from ABBA never fails to put me into a wistful mood, get transported to happier carefree times. As I watch my son getting ready to shed his first tooth and getting excited about a visit from the tooth fairy, a part of me realizes how I have to helplessly watch time race on and think back to a generation ago about my own experience of that evening when I first discovered that I was about to lose my first tooth. Amma consoling me about how this was a part of growing up and me, with a gargantuan lump in my throat, trying hard not to cry. It wasn't all about that loose tooth. Even at that age, it was a feeling of loss of that cocooned part of life, of an innocent childhood, slipping away to be replaced by life's ever increasing burden of heartaches & stress, with patches of thankless existence, endured solely for the sake of your own children, who also provide you with some of the best moments of life as well.
For almost all children from my generation with South Indian roots, a precious tradition that is recalled with fondness is the tradition of 'Kayille kayille' (translated as 'in the palm'). This was a food session that required a quorum of at least 4 kids and one adult who doled out the food. It worked best with an assorted bunch of cousins gathered together for the summer holidays at the 'native place' as grandparents homes were referred to. Winding down at the end of the day, often in an open verandah to beat the summer heat (or the inevitable 'power cut') with unimaginable quantities of chilled yogurt rice.
Yes, the quintessential 'thayir saadam' was the star of this show along with the priceless stories & folktales from grandma that made the food magically disappear. The menu never varied. A HUGE pot of rice mixed to an almost porridge consistency with yogurt or buttermilk and seasoned simply with sea salt. The supporting role was played by a spinach and tamarind gravy recreated from left over sambhar & mashed spinach. These two dishes, served separately at lunchtime would invariably be mixed together and slow cooked down to a thick paste in a soapstone dish, the 'kalchatti'. The older kids however, were lucky enough to be allowed to pair the rice with the spicy sauce from pickled baby mangoes, the vadu mangai 'sauce'.
All the kids would be seated in a semi circle with 'Paati' (grandma) seated in the center with the food. With the backdrop of classic folktales & stories, cool dollops of rice would be dropped into the cupped palm of the right hand. As the outstretched hands got filled from one end to the other, We'd make a 'well in the center of the rice using our right thumbs. As soon as the line up had received the rice, the sauce would be carefully dropped into the wells and the whole morsel would be scarfed up. A tiny plate or scrap of plantain leaf would collect the 'drippings, which would in due course, be eaten up in regular intervals. The astonishing part of this tradition is the volume of food that would be consumed. You realized how much you'd eaten only while trying to get up and felt like a lethargic python that had just gobbled up an antelope!
To me, pickled baby mangoes represent my culinary 'Rosebud' (with due apologies to Orson Welles' 'Citizen Kane'), the single work of edible art that instantly transports me to a happy childhood, free from life's maddening strife. The process of making this delectable pickle is a labor of love, but well worth the effort, for all the happy memories it rakes up.
Vadu Mangai - Pickled baby mangoes in a mustard & chili pepper sauce.(Recipe adapted from Grains, Greens & Grated coconuts, by Ammini Ramachandran)
~100 baby mangoes
1 cup Kosher salt
2 cups arbol chiles, toasted & powdered
1 cup black mustard seeds crushed
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon Turmeric powder
Wash & dry the baby mangoes. A sure fire way to ensure that the fruits do not get moldy is to wash them thoroughly in hot water mixed with 1/2 a cup of vinegar which kills off any spores. I've since updated the process from the photographs down below. Instead of a corning ware dish, I use a sterilized Weck jar with an air tight seal that helps to shake the fruit daily to ensure even distribution of the brine and salt.
Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of oil & shake well so that the oil coats the mangoes. Add the salt and turmeric powder & shake so that the salt sticks to the oiled skin) Cover tightly. Shake the container a couple of time each day for about a week.The baby mangoes release their moisture and this combines with the salt to create its own flavored brine
|One week later|
At the end of about 2 weeks, there will be sufficient brine to incorporate into a spicy sauce that the mango will be preserved in.
Drain off the brine into a blender jar. Combine the toasted arbol chile powder and the mustard powders and blend into an emulsion.
Pour this sauce back onto the mangoes, taking care to coat the semi pickled mangoes entirely.
Transfer the mangoes and the sauce into a dry sterilized glass jar. Pour the sesame oil to form a layer over the surface. Seal, and try to forget about it for about 3 months, so that the mangoes can complete the pickling process in peace.
For the Yogurt rice:
2 cups well cooked & cooled Jasmine rice
cold yogurt or buttermilk as needed
a Sprinkle of kosher salt
Mix the ingredients in a large mixing bowl using your hands. Mash it to a consistency that kind of resembles cooked oatmeal. Serve in a bowl drizzled with the mustard chile sauce from the pickled mangoes.