Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Pleasure of Pootharekulus

In the Eighties, an uncle sent us a visitor from Hyderabad. This young man was a friend's son and he was looking for a job at New Delhi. He stayed with us for a brief period and his mother packed for his hosts some sheets of what I can only describe as tissue paper like sheets made of rice powder. We did not know how these were made, but if you applied a little warm ghee on the paper and packed it with coarsely powdered cashewnuts and jaggery , it was a mouth melting treat. Anyway, the sheets of rice paper faded away into memory until I went to Guntur last year, saw them at a sweet shop and brought a packet of the ready made sweet back home. The shopkeeper told me the name of the sweet 'Pootharekulu, he called it ;and I carried both the sweet and the name back home. The friend I went with to the sweet shop in Guntur swore entirely by Bengali sweets, was preoccupied with a sick dog, an impending posting for her husband which would take them back to Calcutta, preparations for an oncoming wedding and with ensuring that everything was running on well-oiled castors.So when I came back to Delhi, the rice paper sweet I tried out had a humdrum taste, because this shop had used sugar powder instead of jaggery, which decelerates the excitement of eating pootharekulu altogether.
Last week, my neighbour , who is a great foodie herself, handed over our shared wall, a pretty box of sweets which said Almond House and was adorned with a print of coloured pipal leaves. "These came from Hyderabad," she announced, "and I thought you would love them."

The pleasure in opening boxes to discover unusual sweets or savoury snacks continues to sustain and provide joy.Upon peering inside,I was delighted to find the exquisite looking pootharekulu inside. It was almost as if the universe had heard my sighs and organised a series of happenings so that my desire could be accommodated. 'Pootha' means covering and 'rekulu' means sheet.
These had toasted and chopped cashewnut and jaggery and there was a lovely orangish colour to the filling that could be seen through the translucent rice tissue in which it was encased. The rice tissue paper brings back the feeling of awe that is generated by the delicate sheen of tissue paper in which pieces of jewellery or precious stones are wrapped. Picking up this delicate tissue sweet and holding it between one's fingers and biting into it, is an enchanting experience. Cardamom and ghee flavours can be inhaled and when the cashew and jaggery crumble touches the tongue, the diaphanous rice tissue melts at the same time. A net search allowed me to find out how the pootharekulu was packaged and I also discovered that Almond House has an online facility at which a range of pootharekulu can be ordered by the box. Thanks to Sid the Wanderer, I also got to see for the very first time,through the pictures he provides on his blog how these thin rice sheets are actually made. Thin rice powder batter is rubbed on to the back of an inverted earthen pot, heated over a slow fire. When the rice dries, it peels off into circular sheets which are stacked atop one another and supplied to shops. This is an artisanal sweet and like most of the unusual snacks and savouries grandmothers made once, this too is fast receding. Very few people know about the existence of this sweet and those who how to assemble it from scratch are even less in number, It is in stumbling upon these little nuggets of cultural delight, i.e/ the special foods and sweetmeats that different parts of India continuously reveal that leaves the heart aglow with pride in our amazing food diversity. How little we know about any of it and how easily we succumb to the unthinking banality of accessible over the counter purchases. Perhaps, Pootharekulu needs to be advertised as new age gluten free pastry;in order to be rediscovered?

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