The story goes that the humble medu vaDe was invented a couple of millennia back when Brahmins went veggie (to compete with Buddhism and Jainism), and needed a source of protein to replace meat. The vaDe, packed with urad dal and deep fried, can perhaps be described as the perfect keto snack, especially considering that it’s eaten with coconut chutney.
So the humble vaDe is a fixture at lunch during death ceremonies. A standard feature of Kannadiga Brahmin death ceremonies is the “feeding of the brahmins”. These are no ordinary brahmins – they are special brahmins who are part of the ceremony where one represents God and the other represents the deceased in whose name the death ceremony (colloquially called ‘tithi’) is being performed.
Given that these brahmins have fasted before the meal and will fast the rest of the day (this is all in theory, of course), they need to be fed nutritious meals, and what is a better source of long-lasting nutrition than the humble vaDe? The vaDe has become so synonymous with tithis that in Karnataka it is symbolic of death ceremonies, and not prepared on auspicious occasions. The phrase “I’ll eat vaDe in your name” can be considered as a mild death threat, for example.
Right from childhood I’ve always wanted some crunchy stuff to eat with my rice. Back then, my parents would ensure that our house was well-stocked with crunchies such as Congress peanuts, nippaT, mixture, etc., which I would eat along with my rice. Occasionally my mother would make happaLa (fried paapaD). Back when was at IITM, I would make the decision on whether to eat chapati or rice for lunch based on the availability of happaLa – I’m such a sucker for crunchies with rice.
Death ceremonies being solemn occasions, however, crunchies aren’t made. It’s taboo to serve happaLa during these kind of ceremonies (despite the protein that packs, too). The occasional lunch can be eaten without crunchies, but if you have to eat tithi ooTa on a regular basis, some “adjustment” has to be made?
The epiphany happened on the 13th of April 2007, at Paschimavaahini near Mysore. My father had passed away two days earlier after a prolonged illness, and after having cremated his remains, we had gone to Paschimavaahini to dunk his ashes in the Kaveri. This was my first exposure to performing death ceremonies, and I found it so unpleasant that I only performed a limited subset of them when my mother passed away in 2009, and gave up altogether on performing my parents’ annual death ceremonies in 2012 after a series of unpleasant experiences.
That day in 2007, however, was when I discovered the utility of the vaDe as the crunchy during tithi ooTas (ooTa is Kannada for meal). Chutney had also been served, and some vaDes were served at the beginning of the meal along with the rice. You break off a piece of vaDe, dip it in the chutney, and then pick it up with a morsel of huLianna (sambar rice) or saaranna (rasam rice), and you get both crunchies and enhanced taste. And that has formed my template for tithi ooTas (which I’m forced to occasionally attend, though I don’t perform tithis myself) ever since.
Yet another epiphany happened last month, when I was at one such tithi ooTa (in memory of my cousin’s grandmother). Sometime between the initial epiphany and this, I had started eating meat, and this was a key component going into this epiphany.
As I was polishing off huLianna with vaDe and chutney at my cousin’s grandmother’s tithi, the process seemed rather familiar. Considering that I don’t eat too many tithi ooTas, this was surprising. And then it struck me that the way I was eating was exactly the same as the way one eats meat with rice (while eating with fingers in South Indian style). You break off the piece of meat, and pick it up with a morsel of rice (mixed with whatever), and put them together into your mouth.
That was when I got reminded of the vaDe replacing meat in the Brahmin diet. It all seemed to fit in now. Even the way it is traditionally consumed (nothing gets more traditional than a tithi ooTa) is the same!
Tailpiece: Speaking of tithi ooTas, there’s a saying that goes “tie up the cat and perform the tithi”. So I was quite amused when I saw a cat polish off a rather large mound of rice outside a “tithi hotel” yesterday. The rice had been put out on a plantain leaf, evidently deliberately for the cat. From getting tied up during tithis to getting mounds of rice, the cat has come a long way.