I was making a dish using mundiri paruppu (cashews) recently when I thought of my grandmother.
Well, I guess I should actually start off this post by saying I associate any sort of good cooking with my grandmother (Patti), especially the traditional south Indian food. Even if she had to use fairly pedestrian ingredients sometimes, she had a certain something in her hand that made her dishes the best I have ever had. Call it perfectionism. Or care. Or love.
But I digress...coming back to the mundiri, I looked at my pantry, housing this large jar of cashews. And remembered how, when I was younger, a scrawny ten-year-old, whiling away the hot summer holidays in Madras by squabbling with my brother and doing other mostly useless things (we didn’t have a TV at home then), Patti (maybe in an attempt to get me to do something half useful) would get me to run some errands for her. My mum, the sole breadwinner, would be at work and so it was just me, my brother, thatha and patti at home. (My dad wasn’t alive then).
Patti used to get me to go to the edhir kadai (shop opposite). Although the shop was no longer opposite our house, as the one ancestral house had been partitioned into many, each with its own entrance and our entrance was now on the next street to the shop. But still, we called the shop edhir kadai. “Go and get me mundiri for one rupee from edhir kadai,” she would say. “Take the money from the Karaikudi dabba.” This was a set of cuboid-shaped metal containers that she had in various sizes, the smallest of which was used to store loose change.
My first feeling would be joy. Buying mundiri meant only one thing. That she was making something sweet, like payasam or kesari. That meant the cashews would be roasted in ghee. Yummy. Then, I would demur. “But Patti, mundiri for one rupee will be so few. Why can’t we get for two rupees.”
She would think for a minute. That was the affection for grandchildren, warring with the prudence born of years of saving paise that enabled her and my grandfather to get 5 daughters married and 3 sons educated and married on the one single accountant’s income. Then, she would smile and say, “Sari, take two rupees and make sure you ask the kadaikaran to put in a couple of extra mundiris.” I would rush off, happy that Patti hadn’t spotted my deviousness. The more the mundiris, the more the chances of me and my brother getting some fried ones to eat by themselves, instead of picking them out from the sweet dish. And not surprisingly, at that age, if I could bully my brother (who is two-and-a-half years younger than me) into giving me some of his, I would certainly do so.
I would take the change from the dabba and then cross the road (mostly carefully) and arrive at the shop, with the change clutched in my sweaty palm. (Madras summer, so I was mostly sweaty!). The shop was dark and dingy and was stocked with things from floor to ceiling. It had a really high counter and almost always had many people waiting to buy things. I could barely reach the top of it to put down my money when my turn finally came. “Rendu rubaiku mundiri,” (mundiri for two rupees) I would say. The shopkeeper, a stocky, well-built dark individual, would tear off a bit from various newspapers he had stocked all around the shop, and toss a handful of mundiri into the paper.
At this stage, I would force myself to say to him (he used to be a bit scary), “innum konjam pondunga” (put some more please). With an expressionless face, he would throw in another half-a-mundiri. And then, for the grand finale, he would deftly twist and fold the paper so that it made a safe parcel with the mundiri in the middle. Bigger items like a kilo of idli rice etc got a different treatment in wrapping from him, but that deserves another post all to itself.
Bearing the mundiri triumphantly, I would rush back home. And from then on, every few minutes, me and my brother (egged on by me), would take turns to ask Patti, is it finished yet, can we have mundiri now? She would say, no not yet, perumalukku amsaye pannitu thaan (only after it has been offered to God as prasadam).
Then finally, it would be done. It would be lunchtime and sometimes we wouldn’t even wait that long. As soon as the puja was finished, Patti would serve us payasam (kheer) first and make sure she picked out more pieces of mundiri from the payasam and deposited it in our portion. Even then, me and my brother used to rush back to Patti to make sure that the amounts got equalised if one of us got more mundiri pieces that the other.
And towards evening, after her post-lunch work was finished and she was busy only with coffee etc, Patti would summon us and give us the special pieces of fried mundiri that she had saved without tossing them into the payasam. Always, always, there was some mundiri left over for us. So much for my deviousness!!
I use a lot of mundiri nowadays in my cooking, never mind the cost and am quite liberal with the ghee I use to fry it too. But somehow, it never tastes the same as those two pieces of snack-time mundiri that she used to make…
Maybe one day, my grandkids will say the same things about my cooking. But I somehow doubt it. Those were simple pleasures from a past generation. They can’t be replicated exactly in this age of mobile devices and busyness.