Most of us are familiar with seeing a tray of betel leaves during auspicious occasions and family festivities. A traditional thamboolam is said to be incomplete without the betel leaf. All through childhood watching the family elders sit around with a silver salver of freshly washed betel leaves with it’s little bowls filled with areca nut and slaked lime (sunnambu) is now a deeply cherished memory.
Somehow the motions of folding and chewing the betel leaf became a relaxing post meal activity that the ladies loved to indulge in while chitchatting about community “happenings”.
But other than that the pungent vetrilai (vethalai) does not seem to have much of a regular impact as a food ingredient. While exploring the different cuisines in Asia a couple of years ago, I came across an interesting recipe for a betel leaf wrap. The flavours reminded me of that which go into the preparations of popular street food in India, the chaat. The betel leaf was stuffed with a stir fry of chicken with additions like chilli, soy and date sauce to add to the final taste.It sounded so good that I simply had to try. As always we usually do a vegetarian option because there are so many fresh flavours to play around with.
So the resultant wrap at home featured stir fried mushroom ,baby corn, spring onions, garlic and ginger with peanuts for crunch alongside the sweet and spicy sauces. While most of us at the table loved it, a few had mixed reactions. Not everyone likes the spicy undertones of the vethalai leaf, when eaten whole. I love it probably because as kids we were always given the end stalk to nibble on while the aunts and grand moms went about the vethalai sorting/cleaning process.
Piper betle or betel is a creeper that grows easily and is perfect for planting at the base of a tree trunk. Once the tendrils latch on, it grows lush bringing forth leaves both large and small.The health benefits of the betel leaf are far too many to be ignored.It’s an analgesic (pain relief), improves appetite, aids digestion and is extremely beneficial in combating coughs and colds.A betel leaf when slightly warmed is the best topical chest application for babies and infants when they have a respiratory infection.
While a betel leaf wrap may not appeal to everyone there is one other dish closer to home that may tempt the taste buds. It’s a vetrilai poondhu saadham. It’s a fairly recent addition to my list of culinary favourites and is probably not going to change anytime soon. The combination itself has such an enticing effect on the sense of taste.The garlic when cooked in nallenai until it turns squishy, soft and golden imparts a sticky sweet flavour that balances the strong notes of the vetrilai leaves that are shredded and tossed into the rice towards the end. The kind of rice used here also adds to the overall taste. The fragrant short grained seeraga samba rice soaks up the infusions arising from these ingredients and is my favourite choice for this saadham.Having eaten a few variations of this special rice, I am more partial to the one that is made with using a minimal of masala and relies on just turmeric, chilli powder and salt to enhance the garlic, small onion and betel leaves.
Some refer to this as a kongunadu dish while others swear that it has a Pudukottai influence. I however am no expert and need to ask my friend Rakesh Raghunathan of Pulliogre travels to elaborate further on the origins of this dish. For now I’m happy to make it my own by walking out to my garden, gathering some large betel leaves while trying to fend off the big red aunts from attacking my hand and returning to the safe confines of my kitchen to make it.
With the heat giving way to some unprecedented showers, this weather is just right to enjoy the spicy tones that hit the tip of the tongue when chewing on some of this burnished, yellow, betel leaf and garlic infused scented rice. It’s also a healthy vegan option full of nutrients. Oh and did I mention adding some crushed black pepper for further accentuation…yes do try, it’s another wonderful spice addition.