I couldn't say exactly when my junk food addiction began. It seems to have always been there.
I grew up in New Zealand with a smorgasbord of candies and snacks always within easy reach, provided I had the money to pay for them. Week to week, I'd save my cents for another treat at the local corner store, often splurging any precious cash the moment it reached my pocket. I'd look up hopefully at my paper-round-rich older brothers whenever they returned with yet another wax-paper lolly bag or packet of potato chips, cherishing any small offering. I suppose it was sometime around here that the addiction started, fuelled by two thrills: the high these sugary delights gave me, and the exquisite rarity with which I could attain them.
The transition to adulthood brought a paying job of my own, and the supermarket shelves opened their arms to me. Any new variety of potato chip, chocolate bar or lolly could and would be sampled and then either treasured or discarded, depending on my response. And then I moved to Japan, where junk food has been taken to a kind of master level of form, variety and availability in the form of convenience stores. A year there was the worst possible thing for such an addiction, a cycle of joy and self-disgust.
Through all of this, I somehow did not become fat, but my junk food addiction ballooned into something I didn't even notice anymore. It was just part of who I was. And then I moved to India.
The range was pitiful, especially compared with the Socratic ideal of junk food that I'd been subject to in Japan. I pushed down my addiction with spicy-masala-flavoured tapioca chips, boxes of Munch chocolate wafer bars and the occasional decadent Dairy Milk, none of which satisfied. A benefit of living in a tourist town meant a very slightly wider range, which included the more familiar Snickers and Bounty bars for – gasp – 40 rupees, an expense I could hardly justify on a regular basis.
One day, out of curiosity, I bought some tiny white paper packages out of a jar at a Varkala bakery. The shopkeeper smiled and wobbled his head knowingly as he handed over these nondescript cubic parcels. They could have been anything, even narcotics – and though they were only one rupee apiece, narcotics wasn't far from the truth. They were soan papdi.
Soan papdi is a sweet made from sugar, flour and any of a number of flavours, like almond, cardamom and pistachio. It somewhat resembles candy floss, but is more adequately described as sugar thread – that is, thousands of threads compressed into an edible mass. You can see a fascinating video of its production here; basically, it's a diabetic's worst nightmare, a pupil-dilating bite of crumbly sugar that melts gleefully in your mouth.
When I got these packages home and shared them with my housemate, we silently marvelled as the sugar shot into our bloodstreams. I'd bought a few, so we pulled the little cubes apart, examining the individual strands and scattering sugar threads all over the dining room table. We talked earnestly about what they reminded us of and how they made us feel. It was a moment of Discovery Abroad; a New India Experience.
It was also just what I needed, even a miracle of sorts. For one, it satisfied my desire for a fulfilling new type of exotic junk food. I soon learned that as well as these individual doses available on the counter, most bakeries and supermarkets (like Puthooram) stocked luxury packs of brand-name soan papdi. Their plastic coverings glistened with the promise of fascinating new flavours, pineapple chocolate orange mango and all, and it wasn't long before I'd tried them all.
The other miracle was that soan papdi helped me to learn moderation in my junk food intake. With all other junk food options paling into insignificance in the face of soan papdi's wonder, I hardly wanted anything else, but it was so massively sweet – in the literal sense – that I could only have one once in a while. (I later discovered halwa, which went some way to restoring by previous junk food habits; now that I'm back in New Zealand and confronted with an ever-increasing array of enticing products, I'm well and truly 'off the wagon'.)
There are a number of tasty delights that I can't wait to try the moment I get back to India. A masala dosa, a roadside chai, a fresh mango juice. Now that I've remembered it, soan papdi can be added to the list. I have no doubt that at future idle moments I will remember more, and this list will grow and grow.
Photo credit: Georgia Popplewell