Rajesh Goindarajulu travels back in time to traditional wedding meals and the caterers who cooked up a feast using native ingredients

Wedding catering used to have a flavour of its own. Food was served by volunteers who felt it was their duty to help the community. The old town area of the city housed a number of traders and jewellers who celebrated three- and five-day weddings, with near and dear ones participating wholeheartedly in the celebrations. Siblings, aunts and uncles enjoyed the festivities and lent a helping hand. Caterers toiled from the wee hours of the morning until late into the night. Radha Anna, Pattabhi, Mani, Narayanan and Vasu were some popular caterers.

Radhakrishnan (1921-2007) and his family from Vysial Street have been serving wedding food for nearly seven decades. This puts them among the oldest in town. Unlike now, those days, a lot of physical effort had to be put in to serve traditional food at a wedding party. First of all, water had to be drawn out of the well using pulleys and filtered with gada cloth; padigaram was added to make it potable. Firewood had to be bought ahead and dried before being put to use in the kitchen. Coimbatore of the past did not have enough cooks, and male cooks were hired from towns such as Trichy, Salem and Palani. The wedding parties hired the vessels and also provided provisions.

Radha Anna began his career as a caterer when he was hardly 20. Those days, people ate sitting on the floor on long scrolls of fabric commonly known as pandhi jamakkalams. The kitchens were illuminated with oil lamps. All the batter and podis were hand-ground or pounded. Sieves and winnows were used to sort and clean ingredients. Ulakkais and urals competed with the noise created by the chattering cooks. Hurricane lamps were used in the choultries during power cuts.

Sometimes, more than one wedding party used the services of the same caterer in the same venue. They served 300 to 600 persons per wedding, and normally served traditional food.

What’s amusing is that people brought their own silver tumblers and thickeners such as uzhundhukollu podi for rasam sadham. Breakfast consisted of items such as idli, pongal, vada, sambar, chutney, samba rava uppuma, arisi uppuma, avul uppuma, sago uppuma, varutha chutney, aval kesari, badam halwa, paal basundhi and coffee. But, not dosas. Lunch consisted of poriyal, pachadi, sambar, pickle, podi, sweets, etc and in special cases, two items were served in each category.

Traditional caterers were requested to serve South Indian food, cooked using Indian vegetables and ingredients. Food colours were used only for kesari and jalebi. Items such as vella poosanikkai thatta payiru sambar, vazhakkai bajji, avial, sarkaraivallikizhangu poriyal, kothavarangai usili, vendakai puli poriyal, payasams with semiya-javvarisi, paasiparuppu and kadalai paruppu, drathchai mundiri thayir pachadi, puliyodharai, thenga sadham, rava laddu, vellari vidhai mysorepak, khuskhus halwa and thayir jalebi ruled.

Mangai, injipuli, nellikai and manga kothal pickles had the undivided attention of the wedding guest. The utensils used were made of bronze and copper and it was considered a pleasure to use bronze davaras and lottas for drinking coffee.

Caterers such as Radha Anna were busy for about 180 days in a year with weddings. The rest of the time was spent catering at temples during navrathri, margazhi and purattasi, and for sashtiabhdha poorthi celebrations. Such caterers also participated in rail yatras, where people would travel in a group. Radha Anna is also famous for his excellent service at the time of a Bhadrachalam yatra, when a complete rail car was allotted for fulfilling the food needs of the passengers.

The caterers had their territories. They worked for families for generations. Service and satisfaction was the motto of caterers such as Radha Anna during those years of happy joint family weddings and celebrations.