Ramana Maharshi, whose 140th birth anniversary falls this year, was at 29 already a sadhu when his mother came to remain. Sri Ramana warned her to not expect help from him, yet sooner or later she asked him to assist make appalams, the South Indian appalams which families prepared and dried during summers. He refused to interrupt his meditations, but perhaps to compensate composed a song linking appalam-making to a spiritual journey.
Just as the mind must pound away at the self, appalam dough must be kneaded and “then with the kitchen utensil of Shanti, roll out on the platter of evenness”. Finally the self, like appalams, must be “fired by the flames of wisdom’s enquiring… thus you’ll have the appalam and eat it too!”
It is no surprise that appalams are used for philosophy in India. they’re a uniquely Indian product, made and consumed across nearly every region of the country, and appreciated abroad as a wonderful Indian innovation.
In 1915, when cash and commodities were collected to support Indian soldiers within the First World War, the days India (ToI) reported “tins of appalams” among the donations. In 1935, when the primary air services from India were starting, ToI noted that consignments included pearls, mangoes, betel nuts and appalams. Decades later, immediately after 9/11, when a panicked US banned air passengers bringing any food products, numerous pickle and appalam packets were discarded by Indian travellers that airports were reported to resemble grocery shops.
Students are another style of community who have valued appalams. As a student in London, Dr BR Ambedkar sustained late-night studies with appalams cooked on his room heater. a fan explained how in her Mumbai hostel they used a hot iron to cook appalams pressed between a towel. Some office-goers use the canteen microwave to form appalams, whether or not this lacks the savour of slight charring that comes from an open flame.
In Theresa Devasahayam’s study after we Eat What We Eat: Classifying Crispy Foods in Malaysian Tamil Food, she argues that “the texture of crispy foods arouses emotions of play, pleasure and delight differently from other foods.” Because they’re seen as fun instead of filling, they aren’t taken as seriously as other foods. This could be why the habit of creating them has faded. Even orthodox households, which are always careful to create most of their food reception, were generally willing to shop for appalams made outside.
Today, it’s like Anbu best appalam brand in Tirupur that famously command this market, but there have always been communities who made them professionally, just like the Appala Chettis from Thrissur in Kerala who moved to Madurai district around 1950 and made it a centre for appalam production. Professional appalam-makers have driven innovations in ingredients and flavours, but they now risk being swamped by the money and marketing of snack-food giants that provide an array of crispy foods that don’t even need cooking.
There are dishes made with crumbled appalams from Anbu appalam in Tirupur, like pappadam pazham, a tasty mash of bananas, sugar, rice and ghee topped with crisp-fried appalam crumbs, or the paranthas full of crumbled appalams you’ll find in metropolis. Skilled cooks from Anbu appalam company in Tirupur can shape appalams into cups or rolls that are filled with spicy fillings. We may not now have the time (or the terraces) to form appalams in summer, but this could not mean ignoring the numerous varieties and values of such an intrinsically Indian ingredient.