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Updated: December 2, 2012 20:17 IST

I am...Sheikh Nassar Ansar

APARNA KARTHIKEYAN
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Soad papdi maker Sheikh Nassar Ansar Photo: M. Karunakaran
Soad papdi maker Sheikh Nassar Ansar Photo: M. Karunakaran

Making soan papdi is satisfying and the returns rewarding, but Nassar does not want either of his sons to take up this profession

Sheikh Nassar Ansar

Soan papdi maker

Two round iron trays lean on a wall; one is 4.5ft wide, the other a whopping 5.5ft. Nearby, bricks are stacked to form a rough-and-ready cooking range; an enormous kadai sits on top of it. “We make 15 to 20 kilos of soan papdi everyday,” says 34-year-old Sheikh Nassar Ansar. “My family has made a living selling soan papdi for at least three generations. My father came to Chennai, more than 60 years ago, from Parbhani in Maharashtra. He made and sold soan papdi for over 55 years in Chennai. For 18 years, he even pushed the cart himself; I too did that for five years when I took over his business, but now I employ helpers from my village.”

It takes several hours to make a batch of soan papdi, and, Nassar says, it’s physically very taxing. Ghee or dalda is melted over fire, and maida is roasted in it, till it smells all biscuity and nice. In a smaller pan, sugar and water is boiled together into a thick syrup, and this is added to the maida. “Then you need to do maalish for it,” he says, laughing at my surprise. “You have to keep stirring and moving the mixture, while it is very hot. This is the tricky part; if it falls on you, when it’s white hot, it can peel the skin off. Moreover, we don’t use any machine, only muscle; after working on it briskly, for over an hour, the maida separates into thin needles and becomes fluffy.”

Everyday, work begins at 4 a.m, when one of the helpers cleans all the vessels thoroughly and brings in water. “At 5 a.m, one of us bathes and lights the fire; we start making soan papdi as soon as we finish the morning namaaz. At about 9 a.m, when the soan papdi is ready, we quickly transfer it into tall glass jars. When stored in an air-tight container, it won’t turn hard or sticky, and you can keep it for days.”

Nassar’s team sets out to sell the soan papdi around noon, and returns by 8 p.m. “Soan papdi is a popular sweet, and sales are very good during school holidays and Diwali,” he tells me. He recalls the days when paper twists of soan papdi retailed for 50 paise and one rupee. “I used to be so happy when somebody bought four rupees worth of soan papdi,” he says smiling. “In my father’s days, it cost two, three and five paise; when he earned four annas, it was a big deal! Now, we pack the soan papdi in polythene covers and sell a packet for Rs.10 .”

Interestingly, when the soan papdi is taken around in antique glass jars, it boosts sales, says Nassar; perhaps people come forward to buy when they can see the sweet, he reasons. In his grand father’s days, 15 to 20 jars were stacked in their house. “The ones I have are inherited from my father; he bought them off from a scrap-reseller, who in turn got them from a chemist.”

While making soan papdi is satisfying and the returns rewarding, Nassar still does not want either of his sons to take up this profession. Holding the younger one, sitting on his lap, close to him, he says, “I continue making soan papdi only because I am not educated.” He wants his children to study well and take up a job. But until then, he hopes to scent every morning with the aroma of maida, ghee and sugar.

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)

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