by Pavan Kaushik –
As a kid from the 90’s, my evenings were spent waiting for the ting-ting-ting of the bells of pushcart vendors. They used to sell ice lollies (flavored sugar syrup which is frozen in long cylindrical plastic wrappers) and bhel puri (puffed rice flavored with spices, onions, tomatoes and some crunchies). But my favorite vendor was the guy who sold Granny’s Hair (literal translation from kannada, “ajji koodalu”). This is an uncompressed version of soan papdi, a melt in the mouth dessert that has a fine hairy texture made of chickpea flour, sugar and ghee (clarified butter). All my life, I loved eating it, but never gave it a thought of how is it made. But my recent dive into cooking made me rethink all the things I like, only to realize I have never seen anyone make it. Youtube fixed it all, and here is a short description of an awfully long and labour intensive process.
The process starts with melting ghee or dalda (vegetable shortening). To this, they add the chickpea flour and stir it constantly. This is called the roux method and it is done to thicken, bind and remove the raw flavor. The high temperatures and constant mixing creates the ideal environment for caramelization and Maillard’s reaction. The amino acids and sugars in the flour get converted to diverse flavorful volatiles and products which gives them a characteristic taste. The roux process is used widely in French cuisine to thicken sauces, remove the rawness and give it flavour. Constant stirring ensures uniform heating and avoids burning. At the right color, texture and odour, it is taken off the heat source, leaving it in a thick batter-like consistency. Constant stirring and kneading aerates the dough which becomes important later. Parallelly, one makes sugar syrup by heating up sugar and water. Constant stirring and monitoring is ensured for it to reach hard ball stage where caramelization has set in. Like the Maillard reaction of the roux, caramelization is non-enzymatic browning, but the browning is due to thermal decomposition as apposed to amino acids. At this point, it is taken off the heat source, aerated well and poured on a large flat granite slab and allowed to cool. If timed right, the very thick sugar syrup likes to stick to itself than the slab and becomes a pliable dough. Yes, a dough made of just sugar and water. This is then folded onto itself, which doubles the number of layers but with an air gap between them. The process is repeated several times before it is rolled into a shape of a vada/doughnut/toroid. This aerated sugar vada is probably a thousand layer thick already and looks mesmerizing by itself.
This vada is then covered with the roux-made dough. Four strong and able bodied individuals come together and tug the vada outwards in four cardinal directions. They flip into a figure of eight, flip it over to make a ring again. This doubles the number of layers, halves the layer thickness but conserves the shape and size of the vada. They smear the dough again and repeat this process. Again and again. By doing it just 20 times, they have over one million layers, each thinner than one hundredth of a human hair. They tug it one last time with some extra twisting, and the final tug will split it all into fine strands of hair, made of sugar, flour, fat and air. They aerate the hairy wisps which is what I called granny’s hair. If you recompact this into tiny moulds, it becomes the famous soan-papdi. The pulling process is not entirely unlike the making of the western candy, taffy, except for the addition of chikpea flour.
3 simple ingredients make this dessert. And despite its minimal pantry requirements, what makes it great is its texture. However, what fascinates me is how humans actually ended up making this recipe. It has strict constraints on ratios, temperature, aeration and technique. Unlike chance events like fall into fire and come out nice and roasted; this texture seems improbable by sheer luck or accident. Yet, multiple diverse cuisines have their equivalents of this theme. The Dragon’s beard candy of China, Pashmak of Persia, Pişmaniye of the Turks, Kkul-tarae of Korea and the cotton candy of Europe. Despite diverse approaches, raw materials and flavourings, this theme somehow has converged in making flour, sugar and air into fine hair like dessert that is sublime, almost air like but melts in your mouth to give you a sugar rush.