Little luxuries: Balls with a bite

The key feature of vadagams is the large amounts of Madras onions, or shallots, which go into them, which could be one reason they aren't that well known.

I first encountered vadouvanin a cookbook from La Porte des Indes, a restaurant in London that claims to serve French-Indian cooking from Pondicherry. I tend to be sceptical about restaurant claims, and those made by La Porte des Indes seemed particularly stretched, it's recipes for vaguely spiced up French food seeming to have little connection to anything I had ever encountered in Pondicherry. So I didn't pay much attention to what they claimed was a traditional spice mixture from Tamil Nadu.

But then I noticed vadouvan cropping up in other places - but only in the West. In one of its last issues Gourmet magazine ran an ecstatic story its executive food editor, Kemp Minifie about how in a Parisian restaurant she encountered a dish of salmon crusted with "a brown, pebbly-looking mixture'. On tasting she found it gave "a wallop of satisfaction - like a very mellow curry with a roasted onion sweetness." The waiter told her it was vadouvan, a spice mixture purchased from the market and the next day, fired with the enthusiasm that only an American food writer in search of a new trend can possess, she set out to track it down, finally finding it among a group of Indian markets in the Passage Brady.

Taking back samples, they deconstructed it as a blend of spices mixed with chopped fried onions and shallots, and then dried into a crumbly aromatic mass that gave dishes a warm, spicy lift. On the back of Gourmet's recipe, vadouvancaught on in the US, suddenly becoming the new hit ingredient, appearing in everything from chicken in a creamy sauces, as a seasoning for soups, grilled with vegetables, as a coating for fish or mixed with drained yoghurt for a dip. In upmarket food shops like Williams-Sonoma you could pay a lot of money to get your hands on a small bottle of vadouvan. And I still had no idea what they were talking about.

The penny only dropped on a visit to Chennai when I was scrabbling around the shelves at a Nilgiri's outlet looking for pickles, when I found a packet with a few dark soft balls in it labelled 'vadagam'. The label said that this thalippu vadagam was made with small Madras onions, garlic, urad dal and a few of the general cooking spices, like fenugreek (methi), cumin, turmeric and mustard. I remembered that these vadagams featured in the cooking of trading communities like the Chettiars, and one reason they were made was for the men to take on their long trips abroad, to Southeast Asia and beyond, so they could be used as a quick seasoning when they cooked — a forerunner to today's packet masalas.

The key feature of vadagams is the large amounts of Madras onions, or shallots, which go into them, which could be one reason they aren't that well known. Tamil food has tended to be dominated by Tamil Brahmin cooking, and orthodox Tamil Brahmins don't eat onions at home. They are often eaten outside which is one reason why you get two kinds of readymade sambhar masala — regular and 'hotel', the difference being that the latter has dried onions. But this is why such an onion heavy seasoning like vadagam didn't feature in the Tamil Brahmin cookbooks that were the first to be published.

The rise of Chettinad restaurants brought some focus to non-Brahmin Tamil cooking, but this was still restaurant and not home cooking based. It was only when the first cookbooks featuring this food, like Sabita Radhakrishnan's Aharam were published that vadagam recipes came out — her book specifically notes how "they enhance flavours of the curries, and the intriguing aroma is irresistible ." And it is this identification with non-Brahmin Tamil communities that suggests how vadagams became vadouvan, because it was these communities that went to places like Mauritius where the French would have encountered it, and made it part of the more extensive creole cuisine that developed over there.

But why did the French, whose tastes might generally be supposed to be the polar opposite of spicy Tamil ones, take to this spice blend? Partly this is because this French aversion to spices is something of a myth — as Elizabeth David notes in French Provincial Cooking, curry powder crops up surprisingly often in French recipes. Never very much, usually just a spoonful that gives a satisfyingly warm lift to dishes. Larousse Gastronomique even notes how the French, with their mania for rational ordering, attempted in 1884, at the Universal Paris Exhibition to have "the composition of curry powder... set by decree: 34 gms tamarind; 44 gms onions; 20 gms coriander; 5 gms chilli pepper; 3 gms turmeric; 2 gms cumin; 3 gms fenugreek; 2 gms pepper; 2 gms mustard."

As can be seen, the main component in that mixture was onions, which suggests that a vadouvan like powder has long been known in France. But was it all just hype? The only way to find out was to try, so I took some of those vadagams from Nilgiri's , broke them apart and sautéed them in oil — and the moment I smelled the aroma coming from the pan I knew the French were onto something. Vadagams really have a wonderful aroma, intensely warm and spicy, with a nuttiness from the urad dal that goes into them, but with no overpowering pungency, not least because they don't have chillis. Vadagams really do give warmth without extreme heat, with some sweetness that comes from long cooked onions, so that their sugars caramelise, and a further smoky note that might come from the long roasting and drying.

It is easy to see why this warmth without heat was a hit in the West, and the ease of use of vadagams, which really are an instant seasoning , helps. The vadouvan recipes from the West are a bit different from vadagams, since in their travels they have picked up more spices, like nutmeg, cardamom and cloves, which cooks over here would probably not have used as readily, due to their expense. To be honest, I find the readymade vadouvan I've bought from abroad a bit boring, compared to the earthy appeal of our own vadagams.

But vadagams can be tricky. Use too much of them, and burned flavours, along with bitterness from the methi can overpower the dish, but use too little and their warmth can vanish. I'm still experimenting, but taking the lead from the French, I've found that vadagams work best in chicken stews made with cream or wine. Cream smooths the bitterness, but lets the smoke and warmth stay, while wine gains more intensity from the vadagams, while again preventing it from dominating. It is a fascinating flavour which I'm still getting to grips with, a happy experience of how we can really learn from abroad how to appreciate our traditional Indian ingredients.
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