Vathal: The Tradition Of Sun Drying Vegetables In South India
Image Credit: Dhara Foods

Summers in the south of India are pretty scorching and remain that way for most part of the year. However, the dryness and heat that the usual summer months of the year bring, make way for an array of cooking techniques to be put to use. One of them – sun-drying – is a commonly resorted to technique that has found its way into traditional methods of food preservation. Like most other cultures where pickling and making papads are the norm during the season, making vathal (fermented and dehydrated vegetables) is one of the most popular activities in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Image Credits: Ambika Appalam

What this involves essentially is a technique where vegetables like cluster beans, gooseberries, turkey berries, okra, bitter gourd, eggplant and even chillies are soaked in buttermilk before they are left to dry in the sun. Vathal or mor milagu (specifically referenced to chillies) are a staple accompaniment to South Indian meals like curd rice, as well as feature prominently in yet another Tamil Brahmin specialty of vathakuzhambu. Mostly done by women as a communal activity, vathals are essentially left to dry in the sun on terraces or thinnais – a type of porch in traditional homes.

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This technique of sun-drying, although not exclusive to the south, features prominently as one of the most important food traditions in the culture. Off late, this tradition has evolved into a cottage industry where the cleaning, soaking and sun-drying of vegetables are done in large batches for retailing as well as export. One of the leading places that produces vathal on a large scale is located in the Boliyamanur village of Dindigul district. Like most other cultures, sun-drying vathals to use during a later time in the course of the year, becomes one of the key purposes of performing the activity.

Specific types of vathal like turkey berries or sundakkai, also possess a lot of health benefits concerning immunity and digestion. A similar technique is also used to make koozh vadam or rice papads with a slurry of rice flour that is ladled on to clean muslin cloths and left to dry until they turn into a flimsy sheet, that is later deep-fried before consumption. In the process of vathal-making, skill plays an equal role as much as the technique itself and hence, most vathals are made by women who bring their years of culinary expertise to it. These sun-dried vegetables and fryums stay well for a few months, until the summer returns in the second half of the year in the month of October.