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A chip of the old Nayak June 28, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food, Humor.

In a clear case of judicio-culinary activism, C Y Gopinath is put on trial for declaring Rama Nayak’s wafers to be the best in the universe as we know it.

Yes, M’lud, I am reasonably certain that it was not an Indoor Locker.

Or Indoor Laukar, as they tell me its erroneously called in the teeming wholesale veggie markets of downtown Maharashtra. Or Indore Locker, for all I know. In fact, Your Grace, your best money won’t get you a decent Indore Locker till after Christmas is gone and you’ve rung the new year in. After that, it’s Indore Locker season all the way till May, with the occasional Talegaon showing up.

But if it’s December — and it will soon be — then the potato of choice for frying wafers is not the Indore Locker or the Talegaon but the Mahabaleshwar potato. And I stand guilty as accused of having declared, in a public place and in a loud voice, that the wafers made at Rama Nayak’s 50-years-plus Udipi Hotel, just outside Matunga East station, deploying the magnificent Mahabaleshwar, are the best in this quarter of the universe. Or at least the Asia-Pacific rim.

All I ask, before this august court sentences me to a lifetime of dry dum aloo with no spices, is a chance to defend myself.

The problem, Your Excellency, is that you’ve never held a Rama Nayak potato wafer between your grubby judiciary fingers, else you wouldn’t be trying me for nepotism. It’s really very thin, you know. Wafer-thin would be the exact phrase that’s eluding me. Hold it up against the sun, and God will shine a light through it, coming out all translucent and glorious on the other side. In color, it will be a uniform pale gold, though the occasional one will be streaked with a reddening that got past quality control.

Pop one in your mouth and close your eyes as you chew. It’ll crumble all crisp, like the credits of some modern movie, releasing only texture and a fleeting certainty that nothing is wrong with the world at the moment. The feeling disappears in an instant along with the wafer, but if you want it back just pop the next one in your mouth.

They come in packets of Rs.20 each, Your Rectitude. They are not vacuum sealed or foil packed. And they are completely touched by human hands every little inch of the way.

One the day that I took it upon myself to personally inspect the wafer-making process at Rama Nayak, the human hands in question belonged, respectively, to Ratnakar, potato peeler from Kundapur, South Canara; Uday, potato slicer from Bhatkal, on the border between South and North Canara; and Ramaiah, deep fryer from Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu.

It is nearly a religious experience, Your Wittiness, watching wafers being made. The Mahabaleshwar is a sturdy, soldierly potato with a parched-earth tracery on its red-brown skin. Early in the morning, Satish Rama Nayak, who runs the show, or his nephew-in-training Pravin Kumar, will already have chosen the best Mahabaleshwars in the market, going by shapeliness, girth, and absence of sprouting eyes and discolorations.

“Plus hardness,” says Satish. “A good Mahabaleshwar is full of water, which makes it hard. Soft potatoes go phut so we try to retain the water but get rid of the starch.”

Starch is enemy number one in Waferland. It makes the wafers stick to each other, it absorbs oil, it creates grease and glaze, and it causes, eventually, cardiac arrest in loyal customers. After being peeled, Rama Nayak’s Mahabaleshwars are dunked in cold water for two starch-sucking hours. Then, after Uday the potato-slicer has done his stuff, they do two more hours in a metal tub, where they float pale white and luminous like dream flakes. This water will presently grow milky with starch, while the wafer, losing weight, gains a certain formal bearing.

And it’s ready to boogie.

It will not have escaped your sharp notice, Your Perspicacity, that potatoes start cooking at 113°C but brown at 188°C. It might, however, never have crossed your fine sub judice mind to ask how on earth they measure temperature in a 50-year-old Udipi kitchen without thermometers? I’ll tell you, m’lud. The deep-fryer from Tirunelveli sprinkles a little water on the oil. If it merely crackles unhappily, then the oil isn’t hot enough. If, instead, it shatters the airwaves with a resounding whipcrack, then it is ready to host the Mahabaleshwars.

Into the wok they go. There is a celebratory effervescence as the wafers begin to surrender their remaining water. Then, for exactly three minutes, they jostle around happily like tourists in a 5-star jacuzzi, getting their hides lightly tanned.

They out they come. The surface oil drips away into a colander. Ceiling fans are switched off lest the wafer start losing confidence. There is a light summer shower of salt, sometimes red chilly powder as well. And Ratnakar the potato-peeler turns into Ratnakar, wafer-packer. Does about 60 packets a day. No bulk orders accepted, now or ever.

Your Pulchritude, I’m all admiration for your gush of judicio-culinary activism, pressing charges against a harmless wafer fetishist like myself just because I feel kindly towards Rama Nayak’s wafers, but do you really have a case? Here, try one of these. Want another? Go for it. What about this spiced one? Don’t close your eyes, Your Magnitude. Concentrate on the accused. You have a case to judge.

And you should really stop this injudicious slurping.

And don’t speak with your mouth full.

Your Honour.