Fourteen branches in Chennai dishing out 7,000 plates of biriyani a day! D. Nagasamy talks to Shonali Muthalaly on the recently trademarked Dindigul Thalapakatti’s recipe to success

He’s wrapped in the quiet satisfaction of victory. And the scent of biriyani. We settle down in D. Nagasamy’s bustling Nungambakkam restaurant, one of 14, as he explains his latest triumph: a trademarked turban. In the background, the clamour of customers vies with the incessant rattle of plates. It’s 4 p.m., and the lunch crowd shows no sign of thinning. Nagasamy firmly believes that the crowds are drawn by this turban, or ‘thalapakatti.’ Which is why he went to court for it.

To explain its significance, he goes back to 1957, when a man running a betel nut shop realised his wife’s unique style of biriyani had potential to go places. “My grandfather Nagasamy Naidu used to make and sell paan,” says Nagasamy. “His wife — my grandmother — had a recipe for biriyani which was very popular. It used a special blend of spices, a type of short grain seeraga samba rice, called parakkum sittu, and Kannivadi meat, which comes from tender grass-fed goats.” (Kannivadi is a small town in Dindigul district). “This rice, unlike basmati, has no particular taste of its own, so it completely absorbs the flavour of the spices.”

When Anandha Vilas Biriyani Hotel opened in Dindigul, it barely seated four people, despite its grandiose name. However, Naidu’s wife’s mutton biriyani drew fans from all over town, and then gradually from neighbouring cities. However, no one referred to the restaurant by its actual name. They called it ‘Thalapakatti’. “Everyone linked it with my grandfather, who would sit at the cash counter in a white shirt, white dhoti and — always — a white turban. The turban was inspired by freedom fighter-poet Subramanya Bharathi, who he greatly admired.”

When Naidu passed away in 1978, his son, Nagasamy’s father renamed the restaurant Thalapakatti Anandha Vilas, realising that the term Thalapakatti had become synonymous with the biriyani. As imitations began to spring up across Dindigul, he decided it was time to expand. So he bought land in Coimbatore, where he opened a 3,000 sq.ft. restaurant. “He took chefs from Dindigul to make sure the biriyani tasted the same,” says Nagasamy. “Most of our staff are villagers: herdsmen who worked in the fields. Nobody leaves us because we function more like a family than a business. My father would conduct marriages, sort out disputes. We have people who have been with us for over 40 years. Like our head cook in Dindigul, who still oversees the biriyani.”

Meanwhile Nagasamy was studying Hotel Management in Mangalore. “I had done my schooling in Dindigul. Growing up I’d eat what they call a ‘half biriyani’ — it’s about 250 gm — every single day,” he chuckles. “But I never seriously considered joining the family business. In college I was a normal guy, watching movies, relaxing with friends...” The family biriyani business had an impact on his popularity, however. “My friends loved it! Every time I went home they asked me to bring them parcels.”

Along the way, he learnt how to cook it, just like his grandmother. “I did a Masters in Hospitality Management at the Thames Valley University, London… When I missed the biriyani, I decided to make it myself. I had to use basmati, but the spices were easily available: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger... What makes it taste different is the blend.” He adds, “My room mates always made me cook biriyani for Sunday lunch. Friends would drop in — I’ve cooked for up to 25 people! They told me start in London. But I was reluctant. I’m not familiar with the market there.” He pauses, “And maybe — I was also a little bit scared.”

So he worked in reservations for Best Westin for four years, postponing the inevitable. “I didn’t really want to come back to India at that point, but fate compelled me. I returned in 2000, and started work in my father’s restaurant. But I wanted to do something myself. A friend told me about a space in Vathalagundu near Kodaikanal... It was just a Rs. 10 lakh investment.” He named his biriyani-specialty restaurant Dindigul Thalapakatti. “I realised that was our strength. The brand.” In six months they were selling 350 plates a day.” (Each plate is about 500 gm.)

When Nagasamy got married in 2008, to a girl from Chennai, he decided it was time to open a restaurant here. “We opened in Anna Nagar. Everyone said Chennai would never accept biriyani without basmati. But I was confident.” But, for one month, they had no customers. “I thought we wouldn’t succeed. Then realised it was because we had done no advertising. So we started — making the turban the main focus. And people started coming.” The popularity resulted in a rash of imitators. “At one point there were 70 restaurants using some version of thalapakatti in their name.”

When Chennai-based Rawther Thalappakattu Biryani launched in 2005, Nagasamy finally went to court. There were lots of twists and turns in the legal battle, during which both sides defended their right to use the turban. Finally, a few days ago, the Intellectual Property Appellate Board ruled in favour of Dindigul’s Thalappakatti, stating that Rawther’s version of it — Thalappakattu — did not have a significant phonetic difference. Nagasamy is visibly thrilled with the verdict. “I felt it was important to fight for our trademark. This was a name given to us by the people. We didn’t choose it…” he says.

With a central kitchen in Velachery, they now have 14 branches in Chennai, dishing out 7,000 plates of biriyani a day. By the time they open their next three branches, in Medavakkam, Thoraipakkam and Chromepet, Nagasamy estimates that they’ll be making 10,000 plates. “Then we’ll be India’s largest biriyani seller,” he grins. (Right now it’s Paradise in Hyderabad, which makes 9,000 biriyanis a day.) “We want the taste to be consistent, so we’re now moving to automated machines in our central kitchen. We use equipment from Taiwan to ensure standardisation: timing, temperature control, quantity…”

And no. He doesn’t eat it every day anymore. “I’m the owner, but I have to be honest. Sometimes I feel like eating somewhere else,” he laughs. “But when I’ve been travelling for 10-15 days then I come back, and this is the first thing I want to eat!”