Peas, beans and lentils are valued in most of the world's cuisines for their keeping qualities and nutritive value, but India -- with its long tradition of vegetarian dishes -- is probably the world's champion in legume cookery. In India, legumes are cooked in every way imaginable, from hearty stews to crisp, feather-light poppadoms. Poppadoms, with their resemblance to an exotic potato chip, are usually deep-fried to make them puff. If that's more fat than you'd like, or if you're nervous about frying them at home, use an alternative method.
Flat, Round, Delicious
Poppadoms are made primarily from lentil flour, though versions using chickpea flour, sago or even potatoes are widely available in India. Making them by hand, the traditional way, requires grinding the lentils to flour, sieving the flour to an even fineness, then mixing the flour to a stiff dough. The dough is rolled into individual rounds or into thin sheets and then cut; they must dry for a day or two in the hot sun. That's a lot of drudgery, and this long process has largely been abandoned in favor of commercial production in large factories. Commercial poppadoms are more consistent and provide reliable, predictable results.
Fried and Not Fried
When the dried discs of lentil flour are dropped into hot fat, the poppadums puff up as dramatically as popcorn in just seconds. Two to three seconds on each side in shallow oil, or four seconds total in a deep fryer, are usually all it takes. However, even brief frying in fat can leave the poppadoms oilier, and higher in calories, than many Western diners prefer. The poppadoms can be prepared through a number of other methods, and often are in their Indian homeland.
Baked or Dry-Fried
One option is to simply lay out the poppadoms in a single layer on a baking sheet, and bake them briefly at 375 or 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The poppadoms won't puff, as they do when fried; instead, they bake to a crisp, toasty texture not unlike a tortilla chip. They'll burn quickly, so watch them closely as they cook. You can also cook them in a heavy, dry skillet, turning them to prevent scorching. In India the equivalent is a tava, a sort of small, round griddle that's also used for roti or chapatti.
One of the simplest and most authentic ways to cook poppadoms is over an open flame. You can cook them on your gas or charcoal grill, using tongs to turn them frequently until they're crisp. Alternatively, hold them in the kind of wire basket that's sold for grilling fish or vegetables. If you have a gas stove you can crisp them over the flame, holding them in place with tongs. They can even be heated over an electric stove element, using tongs or a campfire toaster to hold the poppadoms in place.
Perhaps the quickest and easiest way to prepare poppadoms, other than frying, is in the microwave. Lay out one or two poppadoms at a time on a paper plate or a piece of paper towel and microwave them for 20 to 40 seconds, depending on your microwave's power. The dried poppadoms are sometimes too dry to heat properly in the microwave, so you might need to moisten a paper towel in either water or oil and wipe the back of each poppadom with it. The poppadoms will cook quickly, and will often puff up almost as enthusiastically as they do when fried.