‘Samosa Mani’ of Tiruchi shares his mantra on making the popular snack food

This humble shed that just about manages to exist below the towering Anna Nagar water tank in Tiruchi houses a cottage industry inside. The product – samosas. The producer – Mani and his team of two to three helpers.

The sweltering heat outside finds company in the heat created by the clay stove inside. Sitting atop it is a heavy iron griddle that is jammed slightly into the wall for better grip.

And sitting beside it, is the result of Mani’s work for the day – a stack of wafer-light ‘pathiris’ (flatbread), cooked lightly on the griddle ahead of getting transformed into samosas.

“I have been making and selling samosas for the past 20 years,” says Mani, who took over the business end after his elder brother Kannan died a few months ago. “We make a dough of plain maida, salt and water and leave it to rest. Then we ‘maalish’ (massage) it until it becomes pliable,” he says. A heavy wooden rolling pin with handles worn thin with use is his trusty aide in the job of making the pathiris.

He uses 10kg sacks of maida for the task, and depending on demand, this can go up to four or five sacks in a day.

“We can make 3000 pathiris from each 10kg sack. Sometimes we sell just the pathiris to vendors at Rs. 60 per 100, and they may add their mark-up after they pack their own filling and fry the samosas.”

Rolling out pathiris, making the filling, and finally assembling the samosas – it is relentless labour from early morning to evening, says Mani, who prefers to delegate just the samosa packing work to his helpers.

“The pathiri-making is a constant process throughout the day. And because of the heat of the wood fire, you can feel yourself melting. But the profits are not great despite all the work involved,” he claims.

Starting out as a seller of snack foods at the bus stand in the 1980s, Mani recalls the days he used to earn Rs.7 for selling a hundred samosas. “I am 35 now. In those days we could live comfortably on Rs. 20 and even save a few rupees. But it is no longer possible to subsist on such a meagre income,” he says.

These sentiments are put aside as Mani and his team demonstrate their samosa packing skills. A huge heap of roughly sliced onions, carrots and cabbage is first seasoned with ginger-garlic paste, chilli powder, curry masala and salt, and then mixed together by hand to ensure even spicing.

Mani uses a wooden ruler and a sharp knife to cut out pathiri strips that will form the samosa casing, and assures us that no part of the flatbread will be wasted. “What cannot be made into a samosa, can be fried like chips,” he says.

Mani’s helpers get to work on the samosa cases, fashioning a triangular pocket to hold the filling. The end-product is sealed with a paste made of maida and water. Mani’s uncooked samosas cost Rs. 2 apiece, sometimes more depending on the filling.

“Ramzan is our busiest season, when fasting Muslims like to buy samosas for iftar,” says Mani, as he joins his staff squatting on the floor to pack the samosas. “The other peak time is winter, when people want to try hot snacks. But ‘muhoortham’ (auspicious) days are a little dull, because there’s a lot of rich food being served, and nobody wants to eat samosas after a feast.

“I know fried snacks are not as popular as they used to be because of health concerns. Even my doctor has told me to cut down on eating deep fried food and tea. My job takes me to other stalls selling fried snacks all day, and I find it hard to say no to a bite of vadai, or a glass of tea. You just have to find your own balance,” he laughs.