Every once in a while I will suddenly realise I have forgotten a lot more cooler things about home than I can remember. And that is a scary thought.
Sometime in February this year, during my search for a temporary apartment in Berlin, my colleague passed me this curious looking personal ad. "The apartment is full of cool vintage Bollywood posters…”, it said among other amusing things. I called the number and what I imagined was a scary man answered on the other end.
That's how I met Rob Keller, who quickly became my favorite person in Berlin. He is the opposite of scary- totally hilarious and always offering up ridiculous cultural insights with a poker face. Of course, my favorite ones are those from his Indian experiences (especially the one about Indian children being their parents' personal slave- all in good humour, of course). He visits India nearly twice a year, and is probably more Indian than I am.
One such day, as he was wrapping up a book for me to take home, he commented, “You know, Indians have this very cool way of wrapping perfectly without using any tape..” I just stared back blankly, not sure what he was referring to, and as I watched him wrap, it suddenly came to me like a deja vu from a previous life.
He was referring to the improvised little pouches made off of available paper, most often newspaper. I remember as I child I used to be mesmerised as I'd watch kiraana shopwaallas wrap dozens of grocery items deftly with their nimble fingers, one after the other. It was almost hypnotic, and soon enough I'd asked to be taught those exact folds; but never quite managed to master the cool, effortless look while doing it.
While there are no rules to fold by, the magic is in that last tuck of the triangular end- securing the contents with its zen of self-sufficiency.
I have a dozen casually lying around here and there, filled with kumkum or turmeric, staining along the edges over time, and waiting to smear some further into my purse, my bags, my coat pockets…So the thing about these pouches or potlums, as they're called in Tamil and Telugu, is so often one can't be sure what's inside. Because once you open it, it is upon you to redo the folds back again...
In continuing with my food experiments, I toyed around with the idea of sweets. The fun ones with a little surprise waiting inside- the Kajjikai, the boori (Telugu fried dessert with a sweet lentil filling) and of course, countless other International counterparts. It's that instant that you sink your teeth into the center and identify what the filling is- that's where the fun lies.
So I set about trying to turn this unassuming, modest packaging into its own thing and give it its own limelight. Candy you can eat whole, with the wrapper on. Edible packets with mysterious insides...you won't know until you pick one and try.
I wish I didn't have to tell you what I put in these things, because it has to be a surprise, after all. But I am going to, anyway, since I would love more suggestions on great combinations. After experimenting a bunch of times with boori, chocolate, chopped mangoes, strawberries and nut butters, I figured that a thicker consistency would make these candies last longer, unlike with the eventual sogginess of chopped mangoes (sad). I also had to improve the boori filling to be less watery and more dense by using condensed milk for sweetening it, in place of sugar and water.
So, here they are, the fillings I used for this batch:
Homemade fig jam with coconut
Boori filling- Lentils cooked with jaggery and cardamom
As you might guess, I was looking for a newspaper-like quality for the "wrappers", and tried everything from pastry dough, very thin cookie dough to rice paper to achieve the folds and subsequent baking. Some came out like biscuits and totally lost their charm, the rice paper honestly looked a bit strange; so the final winner was spring roll sheets! Thin, easy to fold and quite forgiving to my not-so-nimble fingers.
By the time I was done wrapping a dozen, I felt a little like the kiraana waala myself, except I was trying hard to remember which ones the chocolate filling went into.
It was fun packing these little guys, but I was missing the colourful, somewhat kitschy and at-random character of potlums because of how the paper is always improvised and never the same. So I kind of improvised here and decided to give it an abstract ode. A quick date with some Johannisbeeren and Blaubeeren (practising my kindergarten-level German here) later, I had "dyes" to smudge my potlums in.
I felt they were still missing a punch, so saffron got me there.
I love how the dyes laid over each with their transparencies, and it brought me back a tiny bit of the excitement of screenprinting and textile dying that I have been away from for too long now!
Ten minutes of baking and they were done. Crunchy outsides with a random flavour inside, plus a tinge of berry like a bonus.
As silly as these potlums sound, it's exactly these cool little quirks that I love about home. It seems so easy to forget these trivia from the everyday and let the memory of being in India slide into a mere caricature of a few stereotypical elements.
I joked to Rob before he relocated to India that he should start sending me a recorded series of his continued insights. They're absolutely the best! Often, it takes fresh eyes to bring you closer to things you stopped noticing and spark off new ideas. Rob, I am waiting for your next pearl of wisdom!