The sky was threatening to open up. And this set off a craving for something crispy as I set out to explore Sattur’s gastronomical delight, a spicy and crunchy snack called kara sevu .
Like any other taluk, Sattur in Virudhunagar district moves at its own pace. A few buses and an odd tempo went down the street. The main town road dotted with small stores bustled with life. I ask about kara sevu and everyone directs me to one shop: Shanmuga Nadar mittai kadai. Outside the shop is a crowd. “This is nothing,” said a passer-by, “See the rush after 4.00 p.m.”
The Sattur Sevu is a close cousin of the bhujiya , a thicker version though. Initially, the town let the snack appropriate its name, but the spicy taste led to it being rechristened as kara sevu . The shop is so popular that some even call it the “Shanmuga Nadar sevu”.
After I had stood for 20 minutes in the queue, Arumugasamy gave me a liberal handful when I said I wanted to taste before I bought any. and the flavours of garlic and chilli were perfectly balanced in the small besan sticks. But when I asked for more details he clammed up. Buy or leave, seemed to be his message.
The number of impatient buyers stopped me from disturbing him further at that point. I told him the kara sevu tasted superb and he gave me a mobile number. Seconds later I was engaged in an animated long-distance conversation with V. Gyana Gandhi, the grand son-in-law of Shanmuga Nadar, the shop’s founder.
A century ago, Shanmuga Nadar started by selling a variety of snack items but found people returning for the sevu (locally pronounced as chevu ). In no time it became Sattur’s calling card.
“As a child, I would sit in my father’s shop in nearby Vaduvurpatti village because he stocked Shanmuga Nadar’s kara sevu . I liked it so much that my mother would joke about marrying me into the kara sevu family!” says Gandhi, who now lives in Hyderabad. His mother’s words proved prophetic but after marrying Shanmuga Nadar’s granddaughter, he moved out of Sattur. “I stock kara sevu in my fridge now,” he laughs. Arumugasamy who runs the shop is his wife’s brother.
The shop’s antiquity is highlighted by black and white photographs of Gandhi, Nehru and C. Rajagopalachari on the front wall. Below it are two important frames dating back to 1964 when K. Kamaraj visited the shop. The photo shows the then Chief Minister in conversation with the owner and a young Arumugasamy and his sister standing next to them. The 10-by-40-ft shop is buzzing from 9.30 a.m. By the time the shutters come down at 8.00p.m., it sells at least 150 kg of sevu . “During the festive season and other important occasions, we sell another 100 kg. We have customers in Singapore and the U.S too,” says Arumugasamy during a tea break. This time he packs kara sevu in a separate paper cone for me and I promise myself that it will be the last bite. But I am so wrong. The more you munch on kara sevu , you realise you cannot stop. Many street halwa shops on the Railway Feeder Road and near the bus station also make kara sevu . “But,” asserts Arumugasamy, “nobody can replicate our freshness and flavour.”
At Shanmuga Nadar’s shop, strict quality control is observed. The kitchen is in a separate building few lanes away, very organised and clean. The makers take pride in the fact that they use fresh oil for frying every day. What perhaps sets their brand apart is the use of a combination of refined oil and coconut oil.
Unlike in other places where channa dal (besan) is the main ingredient to make kara sevu dough, here rice flour is mixed with channa dal. To this are added cumin, asafoetida and chilli powder mixed in garlic paste. Many other shops that I visited later used a similar medley of ingredients with minor differences like crushed ginger or garlic and pepper powder.
“How you mix the batter and the proportion in which you add the ingredients gives an edge,” says Marikannan, while kneading the dough. He has been working at Shanmuga Nadar’s for 35 years. “I came here when I was 16,” he smiles. He usually does this at 7.30 a.m. but today he has started the fire a second time for us.
His assistant in the kitchen, Murugan, says their kara sevu is special because they use garlic bought from Periyakulam and kadalai paruppu from Madurai. The sevu is made with home-ground spices. By now the huge kadai is ready with the oil bubbling. Ignoring the hot vapour, Murugan mechanically passes the dough to and fro on a big perforated ladle. Thick long strands fall into the kadai . He knows exactly when to strain them out. Interestingly, kara sevu is never eaten hot. It attains the perfect crunchy taste only when it cools down and becomes hard.
The spicy snack is very common in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu not just at teatime but also as a side dish to the main meal. “The staple diet here is paal-saadam (milk and rice) and the spicy sevu makes a perfect side dish. It goes well with curd rice too,” says S. Subramanian, who runs a bakery and sells 50 kg of kara sevu on an average daily.
As I walk on the Railway Feeder Road and the narrow streets around the bus stand, I find many shops frying and piling heaps of kara sevu . There are a few other names like the Annamalai kadai, Thirumuga Vilas and Shanmuga Vilas doing good business with loyal customers. Though it becomes difficult to judge one from the other, Shanmuga Nadar’s kara sevu stands out from the rest.