Rajalakshmy, Priya Jayachandran and Lakshmi Nair have stormed a male bastion that was once reserved for chefs who decided the flavours and ingredients of a traditional sadya
Cooking and serving the traditional Kerala sadya call for seasoned cooks with culinary skills and organisational skills of an exceptional order. Till a few decades ago, a handful of veteran cooks used to reign over the large kitchens that whipped up the numerous dishes for a traditional sadya. Over the years women have stormed this male bastion and made a name for themselves with the quality of their food and their managerial skills. Meet Rajalakshmy, Priya Jayachandran and Lakshmi Nair who have mastered the recipe for success
Rajalakshmy was a reluctant entrant into the field of catering. A trained dancer, she donned the apron when her mother, Anandam G. Nair, passed away. “ I could not wind up the business because such was the good will she had established. She and her friend Rajalakshmy were pioneers among women in the field and when amma left us 13 years ago, I had to take it up,” says Raji. Anandam Caterers functions on the sprawling compound of her home on Poojappura-Karamana Road.
Raji credits her mother for instilling in her a passion for food.
“Poet Sugathakumari teacher even gave us a tagline, ‘Aghoshangalkku Anandam,” she says.
Gender does not really make a difference, says Raji.
Raji has brought in her own innovations to the menu. “It was amma who introduced chilli marinated in butter milk, chammanthippodi and even veppilakatti on the sadya menu. From my part, I go by the clients’ requests. Kovakka-cashew nut fry, vathakozhambu, soya fry, cashew nut theeyal, beetroot payasam, carrot payasam… you find such new dishes on the sadya menu now. These days people ask for unniappam, parippuvada, munthirikothu, kesari, carrot halwa, mysurpak… as well,” she says.
Lekshmi Nair does not believe in holidays. Principal of Kerala Law Academy, she has signature cookery shows on television and also manages her catering unit. “I can’t claim any lineage in the field. I’ve done it all on my own and I’m proud to be balancing everything quite well,” she says.
Caterina, her catering unit, is 20 years old. “Cooking has always been a passion, something which I picked up from my mother and I love to experiment with my cooking,” says Lekshmi.
It has been a male-dominated field from the beginning, she says. “Earlier, men used to do the cooking for feasts on a daily wage basis. The female presence in the field was Anandam G. Nair and Rajalakshmy. When I started out, I did consult Rajalakshmy aunty regarding the business aspects and practical difficulties,” says Lekshmi. Getting space on the mini-screen has been a bonus, she adds.
She is surprised by the changing taste of clients. “I recently found bread thoran and aval thoran in a wedding feast. I go by the clients’ need. Some ask for new kinds of payasams, pickles or chammanthi. Curd vada, unniappam, aravanapayasam, chappathi/poori with kuruma, pulav… all have a place on the sadya menu now. People really want to pull the stops and don’t mind having as many items as they could on the spread. We have learnt to change with the times,” she says.
When she got married, Priya was in for a pleasant surprise when she saw her mother-in-law Vijaya Nair (called Sukumari chichi by one and all) running a bakery-cum-catering unit, Mangalya, from home. But she never thought that she would be running it one day.
Wife of music composer M. Jayachandran, Priya says: “When I came here in 1995, Amma had been managing it successfully for 20-odd years. Though I didn’t pay much attention initially, she used to give me something or the other to do. But tragedy struck when she was diagnosed with cancer. Gradually I had to take it up.”
Priya clearly remembers her first independent work.
“Amma had just returned home after a chemo session. In the afternoon we got a call to find out when we would deliver an order we had taken for that evening. I got a shock. But we managed to supply the food on time. That was when I realised the amount of hard work, patience and planning that go into it,” she says.
Quality, quantity, presentation and rapport with clients – these things matter the most in business.
Speaking on the changing taste of her clients, she says: “People want mixed pickle, boondi/pomegranate/fruit kichadi, sweets, curries such as kurukku kalan and new varieties of koottukari. Our curry, which tastes like fish curry sans the fish, is a big hit!,” she says.
Priya is quite appreciative of the support of the All Kerala Caterers’ Association.
“It is true that we’ve entered into a man’s world, but I haven’t faced any problem till now. There was a time when people weren’t confident about entrusting the catering to a woman. Now clients trust us completely,” she says.