Recently, someone tagged a friend known to be discerning, to a rather sanctimonious column that had appeared in one of the papers, exhorting lay people to not eat vrat foods – concocted by chefs hard-pressed to keep businesses afloat during lean periods.
The columnist, evidently eminently satisfied with his own better taste and judgement, spoke against the cult of vegetarian sushi made from samvat rice and such and made some silly, immature, observations as to why fasting Hindus eat at all when fasting Muslims don’t. The fact that he ate only “real sushi”—during the fasting period at that—merited some self-congratulation, as well as a self- conferred liberal tag!
Pieces such as these may amuse or irritate you but what they also do is a great disservice to the world of food. Sadly, they are dime a dozen of them floating around, “correcting” aspirational diners, “nudging” them on to “better” ways of eating than they are used to, urging them to eat “authentic” or “real” foods. While I am quite happy to take apart any attempt at sushi-making on its own merit—is there a thought behind inventiveness, do the flavours and substitutes work and so on—any mocking based on what is “real”, “correct” or “authentic” only draws my ire. It smacks, after all, of a faux elitism that we thought we had left behind even in the notoriously pompous world of wine.
What really is “authentic”? A look at some of the most common foods in our midst serves to kill all pretentiousness. If sushi itself came about as an invention to preserve fish and has many different regional variations, from the unfermented nigiri to California-style rolls, substituting avocado for fatty tuna, almost all other dishes exhibit a similar adaptability. The story of vermicelli is one such.
The Story of Vermicelli
Spanning across many regions of the world, the thin noodles have so many variations that self-anointed purists would only be left scratching their heads. In fact, there are no clear answers even to where the story of the worm-like strands began. In Italy, as the Tuscan name suggests? Or, in China as countless Marco Polo stories would suggest. Vermicelli is of course pervasive today all over south-east Asia, in west Asia and in the Indian subcontinent too apart from its two big outposts, Italy and China.
Tracing these various versions of the noodle across the world is not just a fun exercise but also quite instructive: There can be no boundaries and no snobbery in the world of food.
We can only conjecture that the vermicelli made its way into India through trade with the Arab world that connected the west with the east for so many hundred years; as a result imbibing within its fold so many culinary treasures.
Cooking with Vermicelli
In Egypt, the Arab technique of frying vermicelli (called she’reya) in butter or oil—before adding water to it and cooking it with rice comes fairly close to how we cook the strands in India, both for sweets and savouries. Seviyan, the popular Id special, common to the Subcontinent and parts of West Asia, can of course be made as a kheer cooked in milk. But the dry version of this vermicelli sweet is made by frying the noodles in ghee, adding syrup and nuts—one of the most delicious desserts that you can come across anywhere.
For Seviyan Upma, once again, we brown the noodles in ghee, temper them with mustard, curry leaves and the mandatory dal and then add water and salt. That’s the savoury breakfast snack so many of us are well acquainted with; a clear “fusion” if ever there was one, of substituting an ingredient in a dish like Sooji Upma and retaining local tastes (curry leaves, mustard et al).
Variations of Vermicelli
Even within the subcontinent, there are other variations to the vermicelli. Jave, the “auspicious” short noodles that Hindu communities mandatorily cook and eat on Raksha Bandhan are a version of the thinner, longer seviyan. Both were made by hand by old matriarchs in their homes, once upon a time. Then, you have the Falooda—the glutinous strands that come with kulfi, or just as a cold dessertdunked in syrup. A take on the vermicelli, Falooda can be traced back to faloodeh of Persian cuisine, a frozen dessert of thin vermicelli made from frozen corn starch, rose water, lime juice and pistachios.
In south-east Asia, of course, the rice vermicelli is quite well known too: From the Cantonese Mai fun to the Vietnamese bun. And local substitutes for rice in the noodles include not just wheat but also mung beans. Finally, if you still haven’t stopped looking for the strands, you could find them in Latin America too as the fideo. The worm noodles are all pervasive—even if we can’t quite define how thick should vermicelli really be and how is it different from other similar pasta shapes even in Italy (every region has its own vermicelli).
In the world of food, rigid boundaries and ideas of purity are best left at the doorstep.
About the Author:
Anoothi Vishal is a columnist and writes on food for The Economic Times and NDTV Food, and runs the blog amoveablefeast.in. She tracks the business of restaurants and cuisine trends and also researches and writes on food history and the cultural links between cuisines. Anoothi's work with community-based cuisines led her to set up The Great Delhi Pop-Up three years ago, under which she promotes heritage, regional and community-based cuisines as well as researched and non-restaurantised food concepts. She has also been instrumental in reviving her own community's Kayastha cuisine, a blend of Indo-Islamic traditions, which she cooks with her family and has taken across India to a diverse audience.
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