Eat street

Velammal’s non-descript stall on Vengannoor street where sweets and savouries are made and sold by her  

Her deft fingers, worn and wrinkled with the passage of time, twist the spicy dough into uniform swirls on oily, circular plates that resemble discs. Five twisted coils on the plate and she stops, throws the plate aside and takes another one. The 70-plus Velammal wins hands down when it comes to making the kai murukku as her younger companion struggles to catch up with her. As Deepavali is around the corner, her hands are full, busy making sweets and savouries that will find their way to hundreds of houses and shops in Kerala.

With her sari hitched up to a comfortable height above her ankles and pallu firmly tucked in, she sits on a low chair before a huge black wok brimming with oil. There is a hiss and a crackle as she drops the plates with the murukku into it. As the murukku sizzles in the oil, the plates are taken out and when the coils of murukku turn golden, she removes them from the oil and places them carefully in wicker baskets. Then the next batch goes into the oil.

This is just another day for the septuagenarian, a routine that started some 50 years ago when Velammal’s husband’s business faltered and she decided to take matters into her own hands. She rented two small rooms with a thatched shed and opened a ‘murukku kada’, where she spun a livelihood with her hands by turning rice and urad flour into crunchy, crisp, golden murukku. She fell back on a skill she had learnt from her grandmother to bring up her five children. Much in the same way, one of her daughters turned to the skill at her finger tips to rebuild a life after her husband deserted her. She also opened a murukku kada.

Today Velammal’s murukku kada is one of the many such small, homely outlets, all, incidentally, called murukku kada, on a non-descript street that runs almost parallel to National Highway 47 from Punnamoodu to Vedivachankoil on the busy Thiruvananthapuram-Nagercoil route. Most of the outlets are run by women who make the famous handmade kai murukku though some outlets are manned by men who lend a helping hand to the women in their families to run the business. But it is the women’s adroit hands that hold the reins of the businesses in this street.

A few days before Deepavali, the street is humming with activities. If murukku is being made at breakneck speed in several places, neyyappams are being taken out of bubbling oil in some, while moulds of perfect achappam are dipped into hot oil in yet another place. Curls of spicy pakkavada hit the oil with a splash as long coils slither out of a seva nazhi held just above the wok. The spit and hiss of hot oil fill the street with the aroma of nostalgia and good food. The eats are made right in front of your eyes in large iron woks precariously balanced on large, single-burner gas stoves. Passers-by stop to buy the hot-from-the-wok snacks sold by numbers, wrapped in old newspapers.

Says Nagamma, dexterously twisting the dough into swirls on round metal plates with practised ease: “I learnt to make kai murukku from my mother-in-law, Gomathi. She was one of the pioneers who transformed this street into a foodpath that has become famous among caterers and bakeries all over Kerala.”

In the meantime, Chandni, a helper, is kneading the dough for pakkavada. “I have to make 300 murukku for a party in Thiruvalla and 500 the next day for a customer in Uchakada,” says Nagamma.

In the adjacent shop Sreedevi is making murukku for a client in Kollam. “Learnt from my mother-in-law. Take her picture,” she says, too busy to waste time on small talk while two women helpers gawk at the strangers.

Murukku is only one of the savouries made in Vengannoor Street. In addition, the women make neyyappam, achappam, munthirikothu, omapodi, mixture, maduraseva, madakku, thatta, adhirasam and so on.

“All the ethnic eats necessary for ceremonies during and after marriages or when a woman is pregnant are made here. Kai murukku is a must for these functions. Later, the women here began making the other savouries and sweets that are bought along with the murukku for such occasions,” says Ayyappan K., who runs Ayyappan Murukkukada.

His wife, Vijayakumari, smiles from her perch on a stool as she nimbly lifts a batch of neyyappams from the oil, drains it and places it on newspapers in a large wicker basket.

“Today, our helpers are absent. So I am making neyyappams only. Tomorrow, I will be making murukku. Depending on the order, the murukku can be of five or seven coils,” she says.

Like many of the women, she picked up the art of weaving the murukku from the elders in her family. It was after her marriage that she used that skill to supplement her husband’s income.

A majority of the residents in the street are Tamilians belonging to the same community, many of whom hail from Kanyakumari district, once an integral part of erstwhile Travancore.

“We have been doing this for many years now, say 70 or more. The women in the family pick up culinary skills from their mothers and grandmothers and, if need be, they can always tap that skill to earn a living.

“In my case, I had a shop selling firewood. When gas stoves came along, my business suffered and that is when my wife started making and selling snacks,” says Ayyappan.

The raw material is bought from nearby Balaramapuram and prepared by the women in their homes. The oil for deep frying is invariably palm oil.

Velammal says that on an average she prepares about 10 kg of rice flour to make different snacks.

She rarely caters to small retailers and makes the eats only on orders or to sell on a daily basis. Many of the women entrepreneurs have many women assistants to help them meet orders placed by individuals and bakeries.

“The peak period is in the Malayalam month of Chingam (between August and September) which is considered an auspicious period for marriages. Then we work around the clock, sometimes from early morning till 10 p.m. in the night,” says Nagamma.

There are no holidays and an outlet can be found functioning even during festival days. The women agree that their culinary expertise has paid them rich dividends. Seven years after Velammal rented the rooms, she was able to buy the space and also provide for her children.

There is quiet confidence in her voice when she tells you that she was able to do all that thanks to her expertise. Many of the women are all smiles when they point out how they have been able to make a substantial difference to their lifestyle on account of their skilful hands.

In Vengannoor street, you have to hand it to the women. These are women of substance.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 3:07:10 AM |

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