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Monday, July 09, 2012

This village cooks a mean meal

Udappankulam in Tamil Nadu has turned into a village of full-time cooks and part-time farmers, finds out Perachi Kannan

In the district of Ramanathapuram is a village called Udappankulam, surrounded by lush green fields. Yet, as the menfolk will tell you, it is a village of part-time farmers, for 90 per cent of them are completely into catering. No fancy degrees, no culinary diplomas for these men, who, armed with just their utensils have whipped a gastronomical storm. Fifty chefs from the village are best known but in the population of 1,500 (236 families), each family has at least one member who cooks for a living.

The chefs of Udappankulam range from 25 to 60 years and are experts at both vegetarian and non vegetarian dishes. For long they’ve relied on innovation and experience, what with education being a recent import into the village. When we visited the village, we came across only children and the elderly. The women were away working on the fields, the men were away catering. Even men who are not into the business profess to possess culinary skills. Aiyyanar, a 24 year old local holds a degree in English literature and has undergone teachers training but is a pro at the kitchen. “During school holidays, I would accompany elders in the family to assist them in their catering orders. It started when I was 15. I enjoyed the food and the money but never thought that it would become a career. Over the years, I perfected my skills and today I get orders individually. I earn around Rs 15,000 and hope to become a good teacher in addition to a good cook,” he says.

A. Karppaiya, 25, is the son of Ayothi Raman, a popular cook whose client list includes politicians and top businessmen. He too started by assisting his father. “For ten years I learnt the art with him. Then my father began giving me some of his orders. Now I get orders on my own. My dishes are such that they cater to the tastes of people from various communities. Patience and concentration are musts for this profession,” says the man who claims to get some 10 orders every month. The popularity of cooking in the village is attributed to Arumugam, Angappan and Perumal. Of these, Arumugam is a septuagenarian who cooks only from home. He says, “In 1996 I returned from Burma. There I had worked under one Mr Jalebiwallah who got his name because he would sell jalebis when there was no catering order. He was otherwise called Devasagayam and was from Virudhunagar. He became my role model. When I returned I encouraged the young in the village to take up cooking.” While these master cooks whip up their delights for strangers, at home they display their skills rarely. “If available at home, I take tips from him for non vegetarian dishes,” says Kalpana, wife of ace chef Muthumari.

“It makes me proud that Udappankulam is known for its excellent cooks which are much in demand. Some food product companies have also printed recipe books of some of our special dishes,” says Ponn Aadhi, head of the village panchayat. 

IIPM Mumbai Campus

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