On an uneventful day some months ago, I posted a photograph on my Instagram page and watched as a spate of responses flooded in. The innocuous photograph was of naada pakkoda – not to be confused with the North Indian pakoras – that are swirly deep-fried crisps made of rice and chickpea flour, red chilli powder, asafoetida and cumin seeds.
In my younger, geekier days, I used to think of it as one half of a DNA strand. To the less nerdy, though, it looks like naada, the waistband that holds up traditional Indian bottom wear, which explains the name. When I first used the name before my wife, she snorted and insisted it can only be called ribbon pakkoda and nothing else.
As I discovered from the responses to my post, naada pakkoda is just one of the many names used for the savoury snack. There are so many interpretations and tweaks of it across South India that it could do with a dictionary of its own.
In some parts, it is called tape pakkoda, owing to the likeness to a measuring tape, and in others, ola pakkoda, which derives its name from thennan keetrolai (Tamil for palm leaf). It is called arikkan naada because it appears like a hurricane lamp wick, and seeval, for its similarity to shavings of areca nut. Kerala calls it ottu pakkoda, while Andhra and Telangana go with aak pakkodi and chekku pakkoda, the last of which is derived from Chekku, the Telugu word for extruder, the device used to slice pakkoda dough into those beautiful distinctive ribbons.
I was awestruck at this sheer lexical diversity. It seemed like a living example of the evolution of language through food, justifying a subset of etymology dedicated to its study. At the same time, the heterogeneity beggared the question: what flavours are getting lost in translation?
As someone who has spent the last decade in search of culinary authenticity, I sigh every time I have to write bise bele bath and follow it with “hot lentil rice”. I realise that while the translation plays a practical role in defining the dish to those unfamiliar with the language, it does have a distinct colonial and classist hangover. I have, for instance, never seen a restaurant translate something as simple as banana pancakes into Tamil or any bhasha language, when these words are as translatable as bise bele bath. It appears almost ludicrous to translate a popular western dish into a vernacular language, as if doing so would strip it of its superiority.
Ironically, even as I write down its recipe, I think of an English translation for naada pakkoda. Even if it is only because I worry that my two-year-old son will never try to understand how to say naada pakkoda, or worse, say it and not have any memories associated with it.
For me, there was no such worry because I spent more time in the kitchen than in any other part of the house. The kitchen was where the heart of the house lay, with all its aromas, sounds and stories, not in the cold drawing rooms inhabited by the men of the house as they discussed worldlier concerns of finance and business. The kitchen was the place where I discovered the women of my house in their vibrant hues – full of agency, opinionated and candid.
Fathers and Sons
Flooded with memories of my grandmother making naada pakkoda, I beseeched my mother on a wet rainy afternoon to whip out a batch. I could almost feel the pierce of my wife’s glare, and hear tell me how unnecessary it was to put a woman through hours of labour in the kitchen, when the same snack was conveniently available at the store down the road. It is not quite the same, I told myself, even as I tried to resolve the paradox of wanting a woman to return to the kitchen, while believing that responsibilities in the kitchen cannot be gendered.
My excitement peaked as I saw the dough go through an extruder almost half a century old and into a pan of oil. The sizzle of the crisps tantalised. We sat down for a cup of strong filter coffee with naada in the true South Indian tradition of sweet, kaaram (spice) and coffee. (This combination is jocularly known as SKC in wedding catering circles, and probably predates the English afternoon tea.)
Even as a feeling of satisfaction swept over me, I thought nostalgically of how incomplete I would be without naada, the unique extruder, and the compendium of associated tales I have received from my mother and grandmother. I relaxed, content in the knowledge that my son will be a recipient of this legacy. Only in this case, from his father.
Rakesh Raghunathan is a food historian, TV show and web series host. Under the brand Puliyogare Travels, he documents foods from nooks and corners of South India.