There’s an easy way to test if one is from Nagercoil (or thereabouts). Just offer him or her chips. Yes, good old banana chips bought from any random place out of town. Chances, are, the Nagercoilite will say, “No thank you,” or just take a couple of them for the sake of courtesy and munch on them half-heartedly.
On the other hand, offer him or her a handful of chips from a certain ‘Ramalaskhmi Sweets’ in Nagercoil and watch the fireworks. The eyes light up immediately and a look of understanding passes between the ‘offerer’ and the offered, a look whose message can only be decoded by another sharing the same hometown (to put it broadly, the same district).
There’s something about those chips that spoils us for life. We simply cannot relish chips from anywhere else after that steady dosage we all grew up on. I know that true blue Mallus swear by the fresh banana chips fried in coconut oil, a remarkable ambassador of the delightful cuisine offered by God’s Own Country. But despite all the common aspects – especially on the culinary front – that we share with our neighbours, when it comes to chips we beg to differ.
Ramalakshmi Sweet Stall sells other snacks too. Everything fresh and delicious. But it is the chips that they are known for. Then comes their Mixture. But let’s focus on the chips for now.
So what’s so special about the chips from Ramalakshmi? Honestly, I do not know. But they do have a slightly different appearance, thicker with the surface puffed up and bubbled, while the regular Kerala style chips are usually flat and thinner. When I scarf them down, I am too busy enjoying the symphony of flavors on my tongue to diagnose it too closely. Maybe it’s that slightly spiced flavor or that tantalizingly elusive hint of garlic on the tongue. Now you taste it, now you don’t. You get a whiff of it and try to trace it down to its origin, but it disappears before you can get a firm grip on it. By then, the taste overpowers you and you simply choose to close the investigation and lose yourself in the crisp delight breaking up in your mouth.
Maybe the secret lies in the fresh oil used to fry the chips or in the goodness of the locally grown plantains. Maybe its the mix of spices used to spiff things up. Or maybe it is just an acquired taste. Maybe we, especially the ones who have flown away to far off lands taste with our hearts rather than our tongues, making us pledge unswerving loyalty to these chips; but I do know people who have crossed over to these chips even after being brought up on the pure coconut oil fried ‘authentic’ varieties. I know Nagercoilites who adamantly refuse to eat banana chips from anywhere else. Most homes mandatorily have a continuously refilled stock of these chips. There are those who have them regularly couriered to wherever they live and people like me who dedicate a whole bag just for those chips after a trip home.
These chips are not just a snack. They can practically be eaten at any time. Unannounced guests dropping in? Bring out a plate of chips. Puttu and pazham looking unappetizing? Crush in some chips into the puttu to quickly perk things up. No fish curry for lunch? Boring dinner? All it takes is a handful of chips to brighten up that plate and turn your meal into a delectable feast. 11 O’ clock hunger pangs? Break out the chips. Perfect to munch on during trips and during snack breaks. These chips don’t just go with your 4 O’ clock chai. They are the anytime, anywhere kind.
And when I think of those chips, my fondest memory takes me back to our dining table back home – my morning cup of tea lovingly made by my sister-in-law, shared with a bowlful of chips and a side of succulent gossip.
I can already hear the crunch!
Pictures Courtesy: D Ramesh and Jayashri Ravindran.