Kaani tribal women’s small eatery near Papanasam dam has food aficionados raving

After enjoying a delicious lunch at a roadside eatery under a thatched shed near Papanasam dam in a salubrious climate, one of the customers, wife of a leading hotelier here, asked the woman serving the food to give her packed ‘meen kuzhambu’ (fish curry) sufficient for three servings.

Within a couple of minutes, mouth-watering hot fish curry with a few pieces of fish is packed in a hot-pack and handed over to the customer even as a few more tourists await to get the curry packed after enjoying their lunch.

This has become an everyday affair at the small eatery ever since the Kaani Tribal women self-help group started this business venture 15 months ago with the help of Kalakkad–Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) administration. They serve lip-smacking quality lunch at a nominal price but with limited resources.

Though they have to purchase everything – right from salt to LPG cylinder – from the market either at Ambasamudram or Vickramasingapuram and transport it to their eatery close to one of the prime reservoirs of the district, the rightly priced food items with excellent quality attract a decent crowd everyday and helps to revitalise the lives of two dozen Kaani Tribal women and their families.

This success story has not been realised overnight. The long and sustained efforts put in by a few dedicated officers of the KMTR, especially C.Gurusamy, Deputy Director of KMTR’s Mundanthurai Division, have transformed the lives of these women.

Though the KMTR officials were ready to arrange financial assistance for setting up the eatery, the Kaani Tribal women, the actual beneficiaries, were not prepared for such a business venture as they were not used to it.

“Even in these modern days, the Kaani women don’t interact freely with outsiders, which is essential for successfully running a hotel. So we had to persuade them,” says Jebaz, Ranger of Mundanthurai Range.

Though constant persuasion helped a lot in mentally preparing the women for the business venture, it was the unusual method applied by the forest officials that ultimately yielded results.

“Even though their food is very simple, the Kaani women make it in a delicious manner. So some of us occasionally had lunch in their houses and used to laud their skill in preparing yummy food. We repeatedly asked them to showcase their culinary skill to the tourists visiting Mundanthurai and Papanasam dam, while getting attractive revenue out of it, and this finally encouraged them to test their luck in the venture,” recalls Mr.Jebaz.

Since there is no power in the eatery, the Kaani women prepare the ‘masala’ for the fish curry, fish fry, side dishes, sambar, rasam, etc., manually by using grinding stones, and this is another reason for the special taste which attracts crowds.

While the unlimited fish curry meal is priced at Rs.50, the price of fish fry varies from Rs.10 to Rs.30 depending upon the size. “You can’t get fish fry for this price anywhere in this region,” says V.Valsala, one of the Kaani women running the eatery. As long as the Kaani women were cultivating lemon, jackfruit, banana, etc., in their small farms, the revenue they got was very little.

“After the forest officials encouraged us (Kaani women) to form a women self-help group, they motivated us to start the eatery, which has become a success story now as we have been getting a decent revenue for the past 15 months and this has ensured our economic independence,” proudly says Ms.Valsala.