Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Spicy Lentil Wafer

Stack of roasted papadums, photographed by Windell H. Oskay, August 2006
I was introduced to Indian cuisine (as well as many other exotic Asian cuisines) during my first visit to Australia when I was in my mid to late twenties. From the moment I entered that restaurant I encountered such an awesome bouquet of spices and flavors that I knew that this was going to be a fun learning experience.

I was there with a fellow traveler from New Zealand, who was surprised that I never had Indian cuisine before. I let my companion order for me. Beer was required, of course, and then there were appetizers, an awesome bread basket, curries, tandoori, and so many other tastes that my mind went into sensory overload. I fell in love with the cuisine immediately.

Among the breads that were served, there were some spicy lentil wafers. One bite and I was hooked. This had to be the single most exquisite taste I ever had.

"What's this?" I asked my companion, referring to the tasty wafer.

"That? That's just a papadum," he answered.

Papadum! Yes. I was hooked.

In my mind, I waxed poetic. O, papadum, that spicy burst of lentil flavors mingled with black pepper, garlic, cumin, and chiles!

Of course, when the waiter came back to see how we were doing, I ordered more papadum. I couldn't get enough.

My friend was mildly amused at my reaction to the papadums. I think he couldn't understand how I never encountered Indian cuisine, let alone papadums, before. Well, I did see an Indian restaurant or two in Coral Gables when I was living in Florida, but I never ventured inside. Now, I was kicking myself for not having the guts to try something new! I could have been enjoying papadums for five years if I had just tried it. I made a mental note never to pre-judge any cuisine before actually trying it from then on, and I have lived by that vow ever since.

My companion suggested that I look into an Australian author named Charmaine Solomon. A visit to a bookstore found a discounted copy of her cookbook entitled "The Complete Asian Cookbook," which had recipes for all sorts of Asian cuisines, from Sri Lanka and India to Japan and China.

I went to the Indian section and found a recipe for papadum and was immediately crestfallen. The "recipe" called for papadum wafers! It didn't tell me how to make them myself? Where would I find papadum wafers, especially in America?

Where? Well, there were shops that specialized in foreign food ingredients, and it wasn't difficult for me to find Papadums.

So, within a few weeks of my first visit to Sydney, I had some "raw" papadum wafers in my hand, ready to fling into some oil in a frying pan.

The wafers expanded in the oil, and I ended up with a slightly burned (from overcooking) gnarled looking object. My nose told me that this was indeed a papadum, but it did not look like those flat, wonderful wafers I had at the restaurant.

The papadums I made tasted wonderful, though, so I decided to ignore the ugly looking misshapen wafers, and concentrate on the taste.

I introduced my wife to "proper" papadums at a nearby Indian restaurant in Lowell (called "The Himalayan" on Middle Street, which is no longer in business, but another Indian restaurant called "Bombay Mahal" is in the same location today). She thought the ones in the restaurant were too spicy, but she eventually came to like them almost as much as me.

One day, when I was at an Indian grocery in Nashua, NH purchasing papadums (of course!), I mentioned to the lady at the counter that I loved papadums, but they always exploded into those crinkly blobs when I cooked them. She told me that I was not using enough oil. The next time I cooked them, I doubled the amount of oil and found that they were much easier to keep relatively flat (not as flat as I've seen in the restaurants, but much better than I was able to achieve previously).

Since then, I've found that some papadums work well in the microwave (of all places!) with flatter results.

I'm glad I've solved the mystery of the papadums, but even when they were curled and misshapen, they still tasted great.

Bon Appetit!

Note: I will be out of the country without Internet access through next week, which means that next Friday's and Monday's blog entries will be skipped. My next entry will be posted next Tuesday or Wednesday.

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