I wouldn’t consider myself a terribly argumentative person, but I have recently found myself embroiled in more than one poppadom-related argument. The first being over a simple matter of spelling. There are a wide variety of spellings in usage on British Indian menus up and down the country and that, for me, is absolutely fine. Here, I’m going with what is most familiar, poppadom but you might also find amongst various options: poppadam, papadam, pappadum and, in rare instances, appalam. Honestly though, the spelling-issue hasn’t really been a hot debate over the dinner table. The next issue is more contentious. And this is the thorny subject of whether or not poppadoms are big crisps.
Are poppadoms just big crisps?
Where you stand on the ‘crisps’ debate has important consequences for the next, and most important and controversial poppadom issue. To get to the bottom of the ‘poppadoms are large crisps’ position we must first define, exactly, what we mean by crisps. Are crisps, as some would have it, only crisps if made from potato (or mostly potato)? Careful: if you’re attracted to this idea then you automatically dismiss the claim to crisp-hood of such snacks as Doritos, Monster Munch, Skips and Nik-Naks. You would, however, have to allow non-traditional varieties of crisp such as Hula Hoops and Quavers. It seems unnecessarily quixotic to deny crisp-status to Skips whilst extending the honour to Quavers! Limiting crisps to solely potato based snacks is clearly going down the wrong road.
Poppadoms are made from seasoned flour and then rapidly deep fried in oil. Served as thin and crispy discs in sizes ranging from about 8”-12” in diameter, these snacks closely resemble large crisps (or potato chips). In some restaurants, their poppadoms are brushed with ghee (clarified butter) for extra flavour. These snacks can be eaten as-is, but are usually dipped into a variety of chutneys and pickles. Have you noticed that I have been referring to poppadoms as snacks? This leads us into the heart of the argument…
Entrees, starters, appetizers and hors d’oeuvres
In the UK and various other parts of the world, an ‘entree’ is served prior to the main meal. In the US, the ‘entree’ is the main meal. As we witness more and more ‘Americanization’ here in the UK you might find, on British menus, the use of entree in reference to the main courses. Surprising as it might seem, this actually helps us in our poppadom debate.
Obviously, poppadoms are not served as a main course, no-one is mad enough to argue for this, and so in the American sense, they cannot be considered as an entree. But what of the European sense of entree, as in the first course of a meal?
Order an entree in a traditional British or European restaurant and you can expect something like a half-portion of one of the main dishes. Accordingly, the substance of the entree will be very similar to that of the main courses on offer. Entrees, or starters as perhaps they are more commonly known, are typically just smaller versions of the main dishes. Often, you might find on offer larger portions of some of the starters in the ‘mains’ section of the menu. In fact, many starters could make a perfectly acceptable light lunch. Thematically, elements found in main dishes are often found in the starters on offer. Consider the spiced minced lamb contained within a samosa and a keema curry; or chunks of chicken tikka served as a starter compared with the chicken found in the classic staple of British Indian Restaurants (BIR), the infamous chicken tikka masala.
Poppadoms, delicious though they undoubtedly are, are notsmaller portions of the main courses. They are also much less substantial than what we would normally expect from a starter. For someone entering a BIR curry house for the first time and inexperienced with the menu (what a journey they are about to embark upon!) eating a poppadom, while a glorious experience, will give no clue as to the dishes ahead. Poppadoms are neither entrees nor starters in either the American or European senses of the words. What, then, are they?
In the UK what we typically refer to as hors d’oeuvres, or sometimes as appetizers, are small portions of food designed to be eaten before the ‘first course’ of a meal (or what we usually call a starter). In America, ‘appetizer’ is often used synonymously with starter so to avoid confusion let’s stick with the French since hors d’oeuvres means the same thing everywhere.
The word hors d’oeuvres translates into English as outside of the work which, in the case of dinner in a restaurant, means: not one of the courses in a set meal. We’ve seen above that poppadoms, unlike traditional starters, do not anticipate the rest of the food on the menu; that is, when you enjoy a poppadom you are not experiencing any kind of ‘pre-tasting’ of the rest of the food the menu has to offer. In addition, food offered as an hors d’oeuvre would not typically be served as a light lunch. You could have a few hors d’oeuvres for lunch but it’s true that you could eat almost anything for lunch! A boy I went to school with had a Mars bar and a Twix every day for lunch but most of us would agree that this ‘meal’ doesn’t match the standard understanding of lunch. What do hors d’oeuvres usually consist of?
Hors d’oeuvres are traditionally served in the form of canapés or crudités. The former consist of some kind of cracker or bread base topped with savoury foods and the latter consists of sliced or whole raw vegetables that are dipped into a sauce or vinaigrette. Both are severed in portions small enough to be held in the hand and eaten in one bite. The reason for this is that hors d’oeuvres are designed to be consumed with drinks, typically cocktails, and during conversation. The purpose of the food is twofold: firstly to give guests something to tide them over until the main food is served but also to soak up some of the alcohol they’re drinking. Hors d’oeuvres are thus a social thing: perfectly designed to help keep up the conversation between the guests.
Consider now poppadoms. Unlike starters, they do not require a knife and fork nor to be eaten from a plate. Small bites can be taken whilst engaging in conversation. Yes, it is possible to keep up a discussion during the starters but tucking into a samosa or onion bhaji takes a little more concentration (people tend to look at their food whilst cutting it). In addition, the mouthfuls of food are bigger and require more chewing which impedes the flow of conversation.
Consider also how closely poppadoms resemble hors d’oeuvres. A small section of poppadom is broken off and then topped with onion and cucumber (like a canapé) or dipped into a chutney or sauce (like a crudité).
What have we learned?
- Firstly, there is no one standardized spelling of poppadom.
- Poppadoms are essentially big crisps.
- Poppadoms are not a starter but more like hors d’oeuvres
The biggest takeaway message from the above discussion should be that if, just for example and from the top of my head, you agree to pop into an Indian restaurant with your wife for ‘a quick meal without ordering a starter’ then you are still perfectly within the terms of the agreement if you order a poppadom because poppadoms are not starters. If whoever you’re with at the time disagrees on this point you can point them in the direction of this article.
Two quick and delicious accompaniments to poppadoms at home
The classic accompaniments to poppadoms are, for me:
- Mango chutney
- Lime pickle
- Raita / mint and yogurt
- Onion salad
I also enjoy chilli, garlic and carrot chutneys and pickles but the BIR classics are the four choices above. While it isn’t too difficult to knock up your own chutneys and pickles, I have to be honest and admit to buying mine in jars from the supermarket. Going DIY doesn’t really make a huge difference in flavour and there isn’t much saving on the cost either. However, the same is not true for the raita or mint and yogurt dip. The stuff on sale in jars is thick, gloopey and massively overpriced for what you’re getting. Onion salad, well, it doesn’t come pre-prepared so I’ve included a recipe for red onion saladthat is easy to put together and much more delicious than simply slicing up an onion!
Mint and Yogurt dip
Just mix everything together; only the mint and yogurt are necessary, the rest is optional. Quantities are up to you, it all depends on how much you want to make and what flavours you enjoy. If you want to go full BIR experience you can add some green or orange food colouring at the end. Regular plain yogurt is a good substitute to the Greek variety but the taste of thinned down Greek yogurt is closer to that found in restaurants.
- One tub of plain Greek yogurt
- 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon of mint sauce (the stuff you’d have with roast lamb)
- 2 teaspoons of mango chutney (optional)
- 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
- Small pieces of diced cucumber (optional)
- Chopped fresh coriander (to taste and optional)
- A splash of milk to thin the sauce to the desired consistency
Note the use of mango chutney. We’ll find this ingredient again in the red onion salad recipe below. When I enjoy poppadoms at home, I usually don’t have mango chutney on its own because I’ve already put it in the mint and yogurt, and the onion salad.
Red Onion Salad
Surprisingly this salad doesn’t get its name from using red onions. You can use red onion if you prefer but I use the standard brown variety. Now, onions can be very bitter and harsh on the tongue. Even some I’ve been served in BIR restaurants have been borderline unpleasant because of the bitterness. This recipe helps get rid of the problem. As with the recipe above, experiment to find the best combination for you. You can include chopped cucumber to make red onion and cucumber salad. I typically don’t because I put cucumber in my mint and yogurt dip.
- Two large onions diced
- 2 teaspoons of tomato ketchup (regular favourite Heinz will do)
- 1 teaspoon of mint sauce (the stuff you’d have with roast lamb)
- 1 teaspoon of mango chutney (or 1 teaspoon of sugar if you don’t have any)
- ½ teaspoon of kashmiri chilli powder (optional)
- 1 teaspoon of salt
Try these two at home next time you’re having poppadoms. Don’t forget that they are great with samosas and onion bhajis as well!