There are some foods from India we can find everywhere in Toronto. I can have dosa and sambar, puranpoli, khandvi, dhokla, and shorshe ilish – and of course all of the dishes North Americans know. But then there are other things that are less commonly found. I haven’t seen rajma chawal (kidney beans and rice) outside of my kitchen though I eat it often in India. Another thing I’ve rarely seen is anything made with sabudana – tapioca. I am used to eating it with sweets. My grandmother would make tapioca pudding, though I was too fussy to even try it in those days. But these days I mostly know it as what I have in bubble tea – an iced tea drink with “pearls” or “boba” of large tapioca drunk through a large-diameter straw.
In India, I’ve had a couple of delicious and savoury tapioca dishes that I have yet to find here.
The first is sabudana vada, a crispy/chewy fried snack made of tapioca.
You can see it here on the left served with really hot green chutney. On the right, with green and red chutney, by the way, are fara which I made in an earlier adventure here.
The other dish that I had on my last trip was sabudana kichiri. It was served in the hotel breakfast buffet. It’s often eaten on fasting days and holidays. However, I could enjoy this nearly any time. It looks like this:
In late September, as I was restarting this project and looking for ideas, this tweet came up in my feed:
At the time I had a packet of tapioca in my cupboard just waiting for the opportunity to try it. There were no more excuses. I and another twitter friend decided to try and post. Last weekend she reported back. Tasty but gloopy and sticky.
Saturday night before bed I put on some tapioca to soak overnight and the next morning after Hindi class I started making it. Luckily, I had a recipe from a chef whom I enjoyed watching a bunch over the past few weeks as I watched the latest season of MasterChef India, Chef Ranveer Brar. The video is in Hindi but the recipe, if you want to try it is in English and so you should be able to follow along easily.
The prep is relatively simple, cook some potatoes, put ginger and chillies in a mortar and pestle and grind them. Have some curry leaves ready.
Then it’s time to fry all of the ingredients – in three tablespoons of ghee (clarified butter) – you know it’s going to taste great now!
And then I add the peanuts. If you are in the room with me at this time your mouth would be watering. The smell of the ginger, cumin seeds, curry leaves, potatoes and ghee is amazing.
Then I add the sabudana and follow the instructions, cover and simmer for a couple of minutes. It is at this point I notice things are not looking like they are in the YouTube video. The second to last step is to add a little more water, cover and cook longer but there’s clearly water coming from the sabudana so no need to add water but the unfortunate thing is that it also is not looking good for our hero in terms of making a delicious dish.
I mix it up, take it off the heat and it looks like this:
Clearly this is not the same dish that Ranveer Brar made. And just as my friend on Twitter also reported, it is sticky and the texture was wrong. So disappointing!
I plated it anyway, to get the photo above and really, I did want to taste it to see if I got anything right. And do you know? While the texture is as awful as it looks, sticky and gloopy, it also is delicious. The flavour balance is spot on, especially with the addition of lime juice. I was prepared to be sad about this but in the end I’m hopeful because I’m half way there already!
As I ate I was sure that I knew the issue – the tapioca was not soaked correctly – either too much water or time or both. It looks like it could take some time and effort to get it right but just in the day since I posted the Instagram stories of my cooking progress I’ve received several messages from friends offering to do everything from tell me their secrets to filming the process as their cook (who always makes this amazingly well) prepares it for them.
So yes, were I to receive this dish at a restaurant I would be 100% sure to call it a failure, but as the person in the kitchen who has never made it in his life, I call it a good start.
Watch for updates on this.