On sEvai and the little pleasures of home cuisineI don't even know why I want to write this post, but I somehow just had to record my appreciations for the relatively obscure food item called sEvai. Also, I guess non-Tams haven't really heard, let alone tasted this local preparation, so here is some free education for those who haven't.
I don't know how to define it perfectly: to call it a variety of "noodles" would not convey the correct image, and will in all likelihood led you into a side street. But it is noodle-like in that it's made up of long strands (of rice flour), but it has not the thickness or the discrete-ness of the Italian or the Maggi kind. These strands tend to bunch up together and please note: we do not slurp them up one by one.
(But before further exploration: is sEvai wholly indigenous to the Tamils? Right now, I assume so.)
Many people may have heard of the iDiyaapam, and many of those many people think that dish is the same as the sEvai. Apparently, that's not true. After a brief and highly technical discussion on the subject with my mother, I came up with one certain fact: they are not the same. There, I'm afraid, we shall have to leave it.
So what is special about this sEvai, the more impatient among you ask. Well, not much if you have epicurean tendencies of the kind who generally tongue-roll your wine before you eat. But usually, it tastes good. For you see, it isn't eaten by itself, but it is mixed with adequate quantities of mOr kuzamb.u (well, no, that doesn't look so good in English transliteration, and yes, we've heard all the "Give me mOr" jokes). Now, for your lexicon, mOr is buttermilk and kuzamb.u, is, ah... well it is like saambaar but not like it as well. To simplify things, it is a "liquid" dish (for want of a better description) and is eaten usually in conjunction with rice. (Now that I've got grammar in, perhaps it is like a verb is to a noun) (Editor: Terrible analogy).
Now the mOr kuzamb.u isn't sweet, but tends towards the sour due to the buttermilk. It has the usual elements to spice it up: mustard seeds, kaDi pattaa, coconut et al. You mix the sEvai up with this kuzamb.u and serve it up with a fried appaLam (not the Lijjat PaapaD types, but the Ambika Appalam types).
But this is not the best part. Now, it takes a lot of effort to prepare the sEvai. That's because the rice flour is prepared into iDli-like cakes, then stuffed down a specific apparatus whose container is then compressed from above by a spiral press to produce the thin strands that the sEvai is made up of. It takes some effort and in our home, it takes two people - one to press down and one to hold the naazi (as it is called) still. Doing enough to produce copious amounts of sEvai takes all evening, so it forms the nightly supper. But you do not eat it all at once.
That's right, you mix the rest of the sEvai and some kuzamb.u up and leave them all night to get familiar. The result is a slightly sour but extremely tasty (vintage & mature, some may say) dish for breakfast. Add a little warm kuzamb.u to unset the dryness, and off you go to the accompaniment of the appaLam crackle. I didn't like this form when I was young, but now I do - it takes some growing up to realise that, I guess.
Because the preparation takes some time to make, sEvai is a once-in-a-while special, atleast at home. There are variants, most popular being a lemon flavour (eaten dry usually) which I mostly detest.
Now I remember why I thought of all this. I dunno if there's anyone in my generation taking notes from their mums to keep this recipe going. As it is, people seemed to show a marked disaffection for anything that takes over 5 minutes to make, so I fear the sEvai is a little doomed. It is a little sad to think that people may not be relishing the taste of this simple dish in a generation's time, so I really hope someone's listening and watching when the sEvai comes swirling out.
* A quick web search yielded very few results, of which none had pictures
(you'll have to use your imagination).
Amudha's Tamil Cooking Page
has a recipe, but it says sEvai is the same as the iDiyaapam, so I'm not
so sure. As it usually is, the tricks probably vary from home to home.
* For Tamil-readers, a guide to Tamil ITrans is here, non-Tams will mostly not know what to make of the "z" sound, so please collar the nearest language expert.
* Well, this quarter's sEvai has been made, so I have no samples to share.
* No, I don't think this is usually available in hotels.
* No, it's not the same as semiyaa a.k.a semolina
* I don't know how good the instant sEvai versions are
* More aware Tamilians are encouraged to point out the numerous factual inaccuracies or share in some nostalgic mouth-watering activities.