The monsoons have slowly started bidding us goodbye here, while still on schedule in other parts of the country. This signals the beginning of a long season of festivities all over India. Today we’re celebrating Janmashtami, the birthday of Lord Krishna. Janmashtami is also known as as Srikrishna Jayanthi, Gokulashtami and Ashtami Rohini. This weekend all of India will be celebrating its 62nd Independence Day and a week later it will be Vinayaka/ Ganesh Chathurthi. We celebrate with fasting, prayers and as always end the fast with ritual food offerings and then some feasting. Paal Payasam, Vella Cheedai and Uppu Cheedai are a must for Janmashtami for us.
Lord Krishna’s birthday is celebrated in differently in different parts of India. We draw “kolams” and a trail of a small pair of footprints coming into the house. These feet represent and signify that the Lord Krishna has come into our home. Kolams are creative auspicious patterns drawn on festive occasions, with either fine rice flour or a rice flour batter. Prayers are offerred at the temple and at home with ritual offerings of specially cooked festive foods. No offering to Lord Krishna is complete without his favourites – “vennai” (fresh home-made unsalted butter) and “aval” (beaten rice flakes). Lord Krishna’s mischievous exploits, and his love for butter and butter milk were a part of our childhood stories. His partiality for beaten rice flakes is tied to his childhood friendship with Sudama. My maternal Grandfather used to tell us these and other stories after dinner when we were kids.
Many families make traditional fare like Murukku and Muthusaram (savoury and crisp rice and lentil snacks), and Pokkuvadam as well. Please see this post for the recipe of Paal Payasam. I personally make Aval or Beaten Rice Flakes Payasam for Janamashtami.
Both Vella Cheedai and Uppu Cheedai also make excellent snack food on non-festive days.
Vella cheedai are small deep fried crisp balls about the size of marble. They’re made from rice flour, a little split black gram lentil flour and jaggery or “vellam”. These Cheedai are made from a dough that is flavoured with cardamom, sesame seeds and small fine slivers of coconut. They can be a bit tricky to make and it takes some practice to get them right. Vella Cheedai can break apart in oil while deep-frying. This is usually because proportion of jaggery is higher than desirable. Kneading in some extra rice flour can take care of this problem. If you do follow the recipe in this post, you should not have any problems though. I make Vella Cheedai with melted dissolved jaggery in water. There’s no need to make a syrup as in some recipes.
You can use store bought flour or make the rice flour for this recipe at home. Lightly pan roast the store bought flour before proceeding with the recipes. The best results happen with home made flour. Soak raw rice in water for about an hour and half. Drain well and spread the rice out on a kitchen towel to dry out a bit, about an hour. Then run the rice in your mixer/ grinder jar to an almost fine and mildly gritty flour. Sieve the powdered rice to remove larger pieces and repeat till all the rice is powdered.
Pan roast about 1/8 cup skinned black gram lentils till golden brown. Let it cool and then run in your mixer/ grinder jar till finely powdered. This is enough to make both the following recipes of Vella Cheedai and Uppu Cheedai.
Uppu Cheedai are also small deep fried crisp balls but savoury and smaller in size. They’re also made with rice flour and a little split black gram lentil flour. The dough also contains, salt, crushed black pepper and cumin, fresh grated coconut, a little butter and asafetida. Little bits of dough are pinched off, rolled into little balls and deep fried till crisp and golden brown. Uppu in Tamil means salt hence the name Uppu Cheedai. You will find Cheedai referred to as Seedai in Tamilnadu. They’re exactly the same thing, but the Cheedai is the pronunciation in Palakkad Iyer Tamil.
Both the recipes are essentially vegan except for the use of ghee in Vella Cheedai and unsalted butter in Uppu Cheedai. You can substitute coconut oil for both to make them truly vegan. The recipes are bit involved and the shaping of the balls take a bit of time. This is where extra pairs of hands help. Pull in other members of your family or children to help. The rice flour can be made and lightly roasted the previous day. We typically offer this fare to God and partake of it only after the lamps have been lit at twilight. This means we have the whole day to do the cooking during Janmashtami.
Vella Cheedai and Uppu Cheedai
For the Vella Cheedai :
- 1 1/2 cup rice flour almost fine but mildly gritty (plus a little more if required)
- 11/2 tbsp black gram lentils (urad dal) pan roasted and powdered
- 3/4 cup powdered jaggery
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 1/2 tsps white sesame seeds
- 2 tbsps very fine slivers of coconut or fresh grated coconut
- 1 tsp powdered cardamom
For the Uppu Cheedai :
- 2 cups rice flour almost fine but mildly gritty
- 4 tbsps grated fresh coconut
- 1 tbsp Black gram lentils (urad dal) pan roasted and powdered
- 2 tsps crushed cumin seeds
- 1/4 tsp asafetida powder powder
- 3/4 tsp crushed black pepper
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter
- to taste salt
- TO MAKE VELLA CHEEDAI, start by lightly roast the rice powder, over low to medium heat, till it gives off an aroma. Do not brown. Keep aside.
- Put the powdered jaggery in a pan. Add the water. Stir over medium heat till the jaggery dissolves in the water. Do not make a syrup. Let it cool till warm. Add the lentil powder and other ingredients to the rice flour. Pour most of the jaggery solution in mix well with your fingers till you have a soft but reasonably firm dough. Add the remaining solution if necessary. Let it rest for about 20 minutes so the rice flour will absorb the liquid.
- After 20 minutes the dough should be moist but not dry. Pinch off small balls, about the size of a largish marble and shape into loosely packed round balls.
- Heat the oil and then down the heat to medium. Drop the balls, about six at a time, and fry them, turning them constantly, till they're cooked. If the oil is too hot they will brown quickly but remain uncooked inside.When done, Vella Cheedai are quite dark in colour. The jaggery makes them darken easily, so make sure they don't burn.
- NOTE : Sometimes, these sweet little balls have a tendency to break in the oil, while frying. So start deep frying with one or two. If they don't break, go ahead and deep fry the whole lot.
- If they do break in the oil, the proportion of jaggery in the dough might be a bit on the higher side. So add a little rice flour to the dough and mix/ knead well. Then shape them into balls and deep fry. They will have slightly cracked appearance on the surface.
- Drain on paper towels and serve when they have cooled to room temperature. This recipe makes about 25 Vella Cheedais.
- TO MAKE UPPU CHEEDAI, mix all the ingredients together, with just enough water, to make a easily kneaded but slightly stiff dough.
- Pinch off small pieces of dough about the size of a small marble. Roll into smooth balls and keep them on a cotton kitchen towel. This will help to draw out any excess moisture in the dough which can cause the dough to explode or break in the oil. So be careful while deep frying Cheedai.
- Heat the oil and turn down the heat to medium. Drop the balls into the oil and fry them, turning them constantly, till they're a golden brown and done. Drain on paper towels. Allow to cool and serve. This recipe makes lots of Uppu Cheedai, too many for me to count but enough for about 4 people to eat!