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NICE: Kalai Chandrasekaran (right) along with Mohamad Ismail at ‘The Pongal’ in Massachusetts.
NICE: Kalai Chandrasekaran (right) along with Mohamad Ismail at ‘The Pongal’ in Massachusetts.

Mohamed Imranullah S.

The Pongal began to spread its wings

across the sea

MADURAI: Almost all of Tamil Nadu would call out ‘Pongal-O-Pongal’ at the top of its voice on Thursday. So will Kalai Chandrasekaran and his best friend Mohamad Ismail. But the difference is that the duo would celebrate the occasion at their restaurant ‘The Pongal’ at Billerica in Massachusetts.

Thirty-seven-year-old Mr. Chandrasekaran hails from Kamatchipuram, a little-known village near Chinnamannur (now in Theni district) which was part of Madurai district before the latter’s bifurcation in 1997. He worked the hard way to establish ‘The Pongal,’ a chain of restaurants at Theni, Bangalore and Billerica.

He and Mr. Ismail, the executive chef, were friends since college days. They completed their graduation at the Thiagarajar College here and went on to do a catering course at Tiruchi in 1992.

Thereafter, they worked at various star hotels until the establishment of the first restaurant at Bangalore in 2004 in partnership with four others.

Speaking to The Hindu over phone from Massachusetts, Mr. Chandrasekaran said: “In those days, opening a restaurant with a Tamil name in Bangalore was not a prudent idea due to the Cauvery River water dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. But we took a risk and it clicked,”

There was no looking back after that. The Pongal began to spread its wings across the sea with its establishment at Billerica in 2007. “Many of my friends suggested changing the name. But I did not relent because the name attracts and brings business. More than that, it keeps reminding me of my roots,” he said.

The word ‘Pongal’ itself has the unique distinction of being the name of a festival as well as that of a food item associated with the occasion.

“I explain this to many Americans who drop into the restaurant to taste two of our special dishes, the ‘Ven’ (white) Pongal and ‘Sakkara’ (sweet) Pongal.

“This year we plan to dole out free gifts to our customers to convey the message that Pongal is no different from the thanks-giving festival celebrated across the globe in different names. Call it Chu’sok in Korean or Tori no Ichi in Japenese or simply call it Pongal in Tamil, a language as sweet as the food,” he concluded.

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