Coconut-filled Sago Balls [Javvarisi urundai]
Malar-akka is my neighbor.
She moves in across the street from us two years ago, with her grown daughters Indu and Subbu, after the government allocates a home for her in the newly constructed “tsunami” housing built for fishermen communities whose ramshackle homes line this end of the beach road. We don’t speak much at first, but the girls take to greeting and saluting me daily, complimenting me when I wear saris and being generally very neighborly. And one fine festival evening, they came over with a small stainless steel box with four piping hot javvarisi urundais [sweet coconut filled sago balls], one for each of the four of us. We eat them all at once, skipping our suppers, they are so filling, and hatching at once a plan to sit one afternoon and learn to make them from Malarakka. It takes months to finally get around to it, but we did, one Saturday afternoon. Malarakka, her friend Usha (who helps us with our meals at home), and the two girls.
The girls run about serving me payasam [sweet milk and vermicelli pudding] in a tall, elegant glass, while their mother sits down to demonstrate how to make the urundais [balls].
Malarakka starts with a 1/2 kilo of sago: sabudana in Hindi, javvarisi in Tamil, Malarakka tells us. [Find it at your local Indian grocers. Fiesta on S. Main in Houston always had a stock.] Soak this for some hours (or overnight) in barely enough water to cover the balls, and a pinch of salt. To speed the process by a few hours, use very hot water to soak.
While the javvarisi is soaking, prepare the filling, which consists of:
–1/2 coconut, freshly scraped
–1 tablespoon urid dal, roasted and browned
–a few whole pods of cardamom, opened and pounded to a powder, and
–about a 1/2 cup of sugar or more, or to taste.
Note: the sago itself isn’t sweetened, so the filling needs to be a tad sweeter than you’d like to balance it off. Malarakka mixes all this well, and sets it aside. Once the javvarisi has absorbed all the liquid (it will be squooshy but still opaque), she’s ready to start assembling the balls.
She mixes the soaked sago well to loosen it and coax it to absorb the last of the soaking water.
Then she sits with one hand tucked into a lightly oiled plastic bag, to keep the sago from sticking to her hands. She speaks of her husband’s cousins, who are French nationals, living in France. “Do they come to visit?” I ask. “Yes, they were just here,” she answers. “But it’s not like they come to see us or help us.” She shakes her head.
She gathers a small ball of soaked sago in one hand. “None of my huband’s brothers went to France,” she adds. “What would life there have been like? You’d have to sit indoors a lot. Not like here.”
She shapes the sago ball once more, and pats it on her plastic-covered hand into a small indented round.
She keeps a small basin of water handy to dip fingers into when a bit of extra moisture was needed to get the sago balls to stick to each other. And then Usha places a spoonful of the coconut-sugar filling mix on top.
Another small ball of sago gets patted with Malarakka’s free hand into another small round…
A little cap for the one that now holds the sweet coconut filling.
And a beautiful white ball slowly starts to take shape.
The finished balls are set into one rack of an idli-stand [also available at your local Indian grocers, though not, this time, at Fiesta]. You could well also use a bamboo steamer or even just a vegetable steamer–but make sure you line the bases of these with moistened cheesecloth, or (if you can get it) a piece of banana leaf (also available at Fiesta! Or your local Mexican grocers).
Next, remove the steaming tray, and allow the balls to sit and cool for a time. You’ll need the time also to admire their jeweled prettiness. Usha and I ooh-and-aah over the transformation of white into translucent. Usha speaks of the balls as though they were little beings that came into their own, at last, with their own wills and personalities.
Loosening the balls from the tray on which they sit is as much an art as assembling them. If you’ve used cheesecloth or a banana leaf, it’s that much the easier. Otherwise, a wet spoon, and some gentle coaxing does the trick.
Like this, Malarakka sits, assembling urundais while Usha helps and I take photos and fuss over Indu and Subbu as they fuss over me.
The girls bring out albums of their housewarming, and of Subbu’s “coming of age” ceremony. “If I had had pictures of my ceremony,” says Indu wistfully, “It would have been nice.”
I flip slowly through the glossy photo pages full of staged and posed images that meticulously document all social relationships. The girls talk me through the images–showing me aunts, cousins, acquaintances. As I’m introduced to their kin, the girls point out that there are others to whom I need no introduction: there’s the watchman of our building, there’s the man who lives still by the sea and greets us every morning, and there’s the plumber who won’t return my calls any more because I once lost my temper at him. Our worlds intersect, and the album is a Venn diagram that shows us just how.
As the balls keep coming, I hear about the girls’ educations and about their prospects of marriage. They want to come and see our terrace–get dressed nicely to have me take glam pics which can be shown to their prospective grooms. Usha reminds them before I can interject that they’ll have to ask my permission before going to the top of our building.
We are kin already, Malarakka, her daughters, and I. Closer than the French relations who do not come to visit. Part of each-others’ worlds, sharing space and mutual acquaintances, the road between our homes, our lives overlapping. But the ways we record our presents and the futures we imagine for ourselves are so different. The girls blush at talk of marriage, the possibilities of work and career or unthinkable ideas like self-development all secondary to that old, established ideal. I understand, but I cannot relate. For them, marriage is an economic future–perhaps the only one they can envision with certainty–perhaps to France, or perhaps to a tall ugly building of flats like the one across from which they now live, from which they see me entering and exiting daily, where they can seek respite and take photos on the terrace with a magnificent view of the sea.
Neither of us seek pretense or transcendence. For just right now though we are okay like that, in exchange for the length of a slow afternoon that holds no differences at all.
When we are finished, there’s coffee. Malarakka sends Subbu to the shop next door for a packet of milk. Usha makes me call her husband to say that she will be late coming home. I am to make no mention of what we did all afternoon, only that work I had kept her late. I oblige. And then we leave.
Note: This recipe makes about a dozen balls, and each one is a meal unto itself, beware: sago is heavy and filling.