About Poppadoms – What They Are and How To Cook Them to Perfection

There are many ways of spelling poppadoms – papadum, papadom, poppadam, and even papad to name just a few.

However, almost all are made with black gram flour, but they can also be made from flour made from lentils, chickpeas, tapioca, rice or potatoes. The black gram is a type of black bean grown predominantly in the Indian subcontinent and known as urad in Hindi.

Salt and peanut or sunflower oil are added to the flour to make a dough resulting in plain poppadoms, but different flavours can be achieved by adding cracked black pepper, cumin, sesame seeds, garlic, and chilli. Often a raising agent, such as bicarbonate of soda, is added.

The poppadum is shaped into a thin, round disk and then dried in the sun.

They are great served before a curry, with mango chutney, lemon or lime pickle, or an emerald Indian sauce. Or with the curry, on the side.

A good, hot, crisp poppadom is a thing of beauty and a joy forever (well, at least for as long as you are eating it). A bad one is horrid. There are a number of simple things you can do – or not do – to achieve the optimum.

how to cook poppadoms
A good quality, crisped and drained poppadom is a thing of beauty.

Things NOT to do:

  • Don’t buy ready-cooked ones
  • Don’t try and cook them any other way except for frying (see below and video clip). Yes, I know people say you can roast and microwave them, but really, they are nowhere near as good.
  • Don’t try and cook them ahead
  • Obviously don’t use olive oil – it doesn’t reach a high enough temperature

Things to do:

  • Buy really good quality poppadums, if possible from an Indian shop. I used to get mine at an Indian grocery in the Gloucester Road until it closed. Then I was reduced to Sharwoods. Now, in the depths of the countryside, Amazon is the Answer: Lijjat and TRS are both reliable brands. They offer various different types, and, personally I like the black pepper variety.
  • Fry at the last minute
  • Use an oil which can achieve a high temperature such as sunflower oil, or use ghee (clarified butter). From a taste point of view, groundnut oil produces very good poppadums.
  • On one occasion our Aga failed, and we had to use our electric hob which gets much hotter. The poppadums were thinner and crispier – if you like them that way, use the hottest hob you have.

How to cook them:

  • Heat some vegetable oil in a frying pan with a slightly bigger diameter than the poppadoms – a couple of inches (5cm) deep (you need to be able to submerge the poppadum) and get it hot and smoking. You can tell when the oil is hot enough because if you break off a little bit of the poppadum and drop it into the oil it should expand and crisp up immediately.
  • Get a good fish slice and some metal tongs to hand.   And also a deep roasting tin lined with kitchen paper. Read the instructions on the packet – some poppadoms need a second’s frying on the reverse side, others should be fried on one side only. Know what you are doing before you start frying.
  • Fry one (or two) poppadoms for two or three seconds at most, turn over, if instructed, using the tongs, for literally just a second, remove vertically and joggle briefly so that the oil drains back into the frying pan, stack vertically in your deep roasting tin, and keep warm.
  • I rather like the way they curl wavily, but if you are of a more regimented turn of mind, you can fry two poppadoms together, and you can also press down with the fish slice to keep the poppadum submerged and flatter.

How long do they keep?

Last night we had some poppadums which were forty years old! Yes, really.  Not in prime condition admittedly, but perfectly good, nonetheless!

how to cook poppadoms
Grip the poppadom vertically between the fish slice and the fork, and shake gently

YouTube demonstration

Some music to get you in the mood

From the soundtrack of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

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A very nice website!

Indian cooking is replete with regional variations and details, some of which do deserve a mention. Perhaps because most of these local traditions are nearly extinct and because “indian” cooking is gradually becoming bowdlerized to something not imagined by those of our generation [ born pre-1960]. Much of the landscape in India has been altered beyond redemption, and many of the causes and conditions that allowed the preservation and practices of endogamous communities in the subcontinent have eneded, with chilling finality.

Here, I should love to introduce your readers to some of the ways papads were enjoyed in West Bengal, in the decades before 1970.

First, the cooking medium used to be mustard seed Brassica juncea varieties] oil pressed in cattle-powered wooden mills, with or without the addition of warm water. Some such mulls still exist today.

The raw oil was allowed to settle for a few days, in order to remove a bit of the “sludge”, and then decanted. This is very powerful stuff, and it is an acquied taste, for the most part. In western Bengal, Bangabhumi, the flavors of raw mustard oil are enjoyed in many different ways not necessarily seen in other parts of India that also use mustard oil as their primary vegetable fat.

Additionally, the types of papad in western Bangabhumi also differ from many types of papad common elsewhere in India. There are 2 common types that are enjoyed a lot, but purchased from commercial sources. Both are plain, sans any added spices, and rolled very, very, very thin.

One type is that served at traidional wedding feasts, and similar happy occasions. The rounds are of reasonable size, and very thinly rolled. In the foodways of western Bangabhumi, “chaatni” is sweet-sour compote like dish that is served as the PENULTIMATE course [ to be followed by desserts], and enjoyed along with these thin papads.

The second type, as per my limited personal experience, was reserved for the carnivals taking place along the Sri Sri Jagannatha Ratha Yatra, that begins on the shukla dvitiya, of the month of Aashaadha, early July, whem the monsoons should be in full swing.

This papad is of very large diamenter, at least 12 inches, and rolled very thin. Very oily treat, much enjoyed during this festival in ever so many rural places in western Bengal. Redolent of freshly milled mustard oil, it was a salient olfactory signal of this festival being enjoyed to the max, and the sight of people walking around enjoying the huge discs of freshly fried papad was one of the happiest memories of these times.

There are other types of papad that are not tradional to rural Bengal, but whivh also are enjoyed today, albeit not fried in the raw mustard oil. One type is the saboo dana, or tapioca starch papads very similar to Indonesian prawn crackers/krupuk but with a lighter constency, and sans any prawns.

Papad made with potato flour or starch is yet another delicious product very common among the Maharashtrians in India. Well worth seeking out.

Sadly, I have never ever come across the specific west Bengali papads for sale anywhere outside West Bengal, and should be delighted to be proven wrong on this count!!

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