The chips makers of Kozhikode say they have nothing much to celebrate this Onam

Banana chips are taken for granted. At festivals and weddings they quietly take their place at the fag end of the leaf; while at home a tub of it is handy company for the television rom-com. We, of Kozhikode, have always been loyal to our banana chips, promptly stocking them from small shops where bubbly hot coconut oil and raw banana whip up the flavour of memories.

The chips makers of Kozhikode have taught us how in their magical hands the snack made with the same ingredients can taste and feel different at each shop. For wafer thin ones we have a choice, so too for the trifle plump ones and if all we care for is the crackling crisp variety, there is a place to go too.

During Onam, we love our banana chips a little more. But those who make them for us say this Onam is not as crisp and fresh as they would like it to be. For the chips makers, the sizzle has been going out of their business for a while now. Though Onam is when their sales peak, they say price hike and labour crunch are pouring water on festivities. Most continue banking on their old name and loyal customers.

At K.N. Chandappan and Sons, one of the oldest names in the Kozhikode’s chips circuit at a hearty 108, Onam will be welcomed on shoestring man-power. Owner Aravindakshan K.N. remembers a time when 14 people worked in the kitchen, cutting, slicing and frying. But now all that is done by four of the family. Work for Onam picks up two to three days before the festival. Here the stress is on doing what they can with limited man-power. At Chandappan, a kilo of chips is sold at Rs. 320. Aravindakashan explains their signature, “We have trained ourselves in our way of frying chips. We fry a limited quantity, maybe one and a half kg in one trip. We have never used artificial colours,” he says.

Business, he says, was good once. When the country banana with which their chips are made grew abundantly in our countryside. “The loss of agriculture, especially the country banana in areas like Kadalundi, has affected us. Less and less people are cultivating them. We are just trying to keep up a tradition here,” says Aravindakshan.

The lacklustre business has extended to Onam too. Aravindakshan recounts a time, close to 30 years ago, when Onam meant booming business. “In the plywood boxes for tea powder we used to send chips to the Malayali Samajam in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Pune and Chennai. Now we restrict ourselves to counter sales. The business is almost running at a loss,” he rues.

At another popular chips centre N. Vasudevan Chips, the owner says, “In the past we use to pray for Onam and Vishu. The sales then marked our yearly business.” But Vasudevan says now festivals are a scare. “Around the time of festivals, the price of things like raw banana sky rocket and it takes us a lot of time to balance our losses,” adds Vasudevan. What keeps him going is his motto of never compromising on quality. “Even if we are offered the Wayanad banana for free we won’t take it. The chips made with will be hard as wood. We go in only for the country banana,” he says. At Vasudevan too, a kilo of chips this Onam comes for Rs. 320.

Puthiyapurayil Sreedharan of Kumari Chips narrates a tale of fighting it out to stay afloat. “I am running the business for the sake of it. There is no improvement in our lives. Though an outsider might think how good the sales are,” he says. Shop rent, the price of raw banana at Rs. 53 a kg topped with scarcity of workers mean the chips maker has nothing much to cheer about.

“New people are not coming into this job. This is hard work, standing near hot oil, the stain of banana are all part of it. I just have one regular staffer, the rest keep coming in and moving out. We are running because my family pitches in,” says Sreedharan.

He remembers the Onam of yore, in the early years of the 24-year-old shop, as a “jolly affair.” “We sold a kilo of chips at Rs. 50 then.” At Kumari, a kilo of chips for Onam will come at Rs. 280 and the quantity fried will be almost double. “On a regular day we fry about a quintal and half. For Onam it will be about three quintals. It will be about longer duty and double pay.”

At the 91-year-old Sankaran Bakery those running it say price hike has affected buying. “People hardly buy in bulk. If they bought a kilo last year, now they buy a quarter,” says a member of the family which runs the bakery. Labour crunch has not yet hit the bakery hard thanks to it old name and associations. “We still have our old worker heads who manage to scout out new ones. Further, we all help,” he says.

At Sankaran, they say, banana chips are not vintage Kozhikode anymore. Small, good bakeries dot even the countryside, he says. Here they make their chips with the Mettupalayam or Tuttukudi banana. What keeps the chips makers going are the customers who understand their signature.