I was in Rajahmundry, a town on the banks of the mighty Godavari River—the widest river I have ever seen—in Andhra Pradesh. It was lunchtime, and I was desperately hungry. Someone thought I should try a mess. That suggested a military setup, but it turned out to be nothing of the kind, though the name may have originated there in British times.
Andhra messes are places to eat local food very cheaply. The one I went into was in a basement, dark and sad. But the food was vegetarian, clean, and excellent. For 50 rupees (about 80 cents) I got two types of rice, one plain and one Tomato Rice, vegetables cooked in buttermilk, a jackfruit curry, two dals, including Sambar as well as Rasam, a spicy drink, some chutneys and yogurt relishes, and this Cabbage Vepadu.
Vepadus are fried or stir-fried dishes. Crisp, fried foods are a basic part of every South Indian meal, as crunchy foods are considered an essential texture. Sometimes just a popadam will do, but here we actually had two such dishes—these cabbage fritters and crispy, mesh-like squares made with potato.
All this was served on what looked like metal “thalis,” or platters, that were gold on the outside and silver on the inside. They were actually made out of a thin foil that initially had to be anchored to the table with a glass of water, because otherwise the fan just blew them away. At the end of the meal they were crumpled up and thrown away, just as banana leaves might have been in earlier times.
Serve these fritters as part of a meal, as a snack, or as a first course with a chutney.
• ½ head of cabbage (about 1 lb)
• 1 tablespoon cornstarch
• 3 tablespoons chickpea flour (besan or gram flour), plus more as needed
• 1 teaspoon salt
• ½–¾ teaspoon chili powder
• 2 teaspoons ground coriander
• ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
• Handful of raw peanuts, with or without skin (optional)
• 8–10 fresh curry leaves, shredded
• Handful of fresh cilantro tops, well washed, dried, and chopped
• Olive or peanut oil, for deep-frying
1. The fritters have a spidery look when fried, with wild strands sticking out from a more solid center. To achieve this, the cabbage has to be cut by hand. Cut the cabbage in half lengthwise, then in half again. Remove the hard core. Now set a piece down on one of its flat sides and, using a bread knife, cut its other flat side lengthwise into the finest long shreds you can manage—the thinner, the better. Do the same with the other sections of the cabbage. Put all the cabbage shreds into a bowl. Add all the remaining ingredients, except the oil. Using your hands (you can wear plastic gloves if you wish), rub all the seasonings and flours into the cabbage. If you fry the fritters immediately (this is best), you will not need more chickpea flour. If you wait, the cabbage will weep and get watery, so you might need to rub in 1–2 more tablespoons of flour (making the fritters denser).
2. Put the oil for frying in a wok or medium frying pan and set over medium-low heat. When hot enough, a shred of cabbage placed in the oil should sizzle immediately. Using your hand and a light touch, pick up a tablespoon or so of the cabbage mixture, keeping it flat rather than ball-like. Carefully lower it into the oil. Repeat, adding as many fritters as the pan will hold easily. Fry, turning now and then, for 5–6 minutes or until golden red, crisp, and cooked all the way through. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a tray lined with a paper towel.
3. Make all the fritters this way, adjusting the heat as needed. Serve immediately.