Tastes Like Home – Vermicelli and Vermicelli Cake
– they’re not so different
One main ingredient, with very similar modes of preparation, creates two dishes that represent two different religious foods in Guyana. The vermicelli made like a pudding (think rice pudding) is associated with Hindu feasts, festivals and celebrations and vermicelli cake is just as celebrated and enjoyed at Muslim feasts, festivals and celebrations. It makes me think of how similar we are as people, I don’t mean religiously, but rather in tastes.
The coming week will see countries with large Hindu and Muslim populations celebrating Youman-Nabi, the birth anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad and Phagwah (Holi), the spring festival. We Guyanese and Trinidadians will be part of this international celebration. Apart from the religious offerings and prayers, there will be great feasting! There will be lots of finger-licking vegetarian food and excellent halaal dishes. And then of course there are the sweets that have been slaved over – lots of rolling, frying, grinding and stirring, everything lovingly prepared to be shared with family and friends.
Whenever it was a Muslim holiday, I’d always looked forward to the vermicelli cake that my cousin Shireen would make. Peppered with raisins and cherries with the hint of spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, one bite and you would not stop eating until it’s all done. You’d lick the spoon and let it linger in your mouth as if willing it to create another spoonful.
Vermicelli (and in this case, I am talking about the pudding-like dish and not the noodle itself), is something that was always considered a treat in our home. A treat not because the ingredients were expensive or that the process of making it was labour-intensive, no, it was a treat because in the strictest sense, it is a dessert! No wonder my mom did not want to make it as often as we demanded, after all, that would be like eating a very rich dessert exclusively for a meal. Alright, don’t protest, I know that for some of you, having dessert as a complete meal means that everything in your world is aligned completely in your favour.
While I associated vermicelli cake with being a particularly Muslim celebratory treat, I never thought of vermicelli as being associated with Hindu festivals or celebrations. I just assumed it was a dish that my mom or aunt would make when they wanted to make something that they had enjoyed when they were growing up. Of course, my mom and aunt had been raised as Hindus and it was not until a few years ago that I had made the connection that vermicelli as we know it, is a celebratory sweet dish that’s made to celebrate births, weddings and as temple offerings in particular religious ceremonies.
This year Phagwah and Youman-Nabi are within a day of each other, but, as you know, I’m not living in Guyana right now. But I did have a packet of vermicelli noodles, so I decided that I’d do the next best thing – make both dishes and let my taste buds have a party.
It is amazing how both of these dishes use 95 percent of the same ingredients and start off the same way. It is only the finishing, and thus the end product that is different in appearance and texture.
The vermicelli pudding or as some would say, wet-vermicelli starts off with the noodles being parched with the butter or ghee depending on which is being used. The noodles are then cooked with lots of milk, spices, raisins and sweetened with condensed milk. The consistency of the finished dish is that of a thick creamy soup. Some people even like to slurp the noodles as they eat it. In our home, whenever mommy made it, it was always in the evening. I cannot recall it ever being made at any other time of the day. So, obviously, I grew up thinking that this is only to be made and eaten in the evening. It was always served very warm also. This is another example of how differently these dishes were considered – the vermicelli cake was always made as something to be eaten daytime and having it at room temperature is the norm.
Vermicelli cake starts out exactly the same way as the pudding, the difference here is that a little custard powder is dissolved and added to the mixture; the entire pot of creamy noodles is allowed to thicken a lot and then poured into a buttered dish and left to cool completely before being cut into squares and served.
Both presentations and representations are delightful treats. I am so happy that I have some of the vermicelli cake in the fridge that I can have a piece when I’m finished writing this column. So my fellow country-people, as the celebrations get into full swing this week, let’s remember that though we are celebrating different things with different significances, let’s also remember that like the vermicelli pudding and the vermicelli cake, that we are not so different, we just have different points of view. However, it is that diversity that makes us who we are as individuals, as a people, as a society and as a nation. I don’t think the heavenly makers would have it any other way.
Enjoy the celebrations!