The master chef of the youth festival

Pazhayidom Mohanan Namboothiri Photo: Liza George   | Photo Credit: Liza George

Aroma of spicy sambar wafts in the air; buckets filled with avial, payasam, thoran, pickle and sambharam are passed on to busy volunteers; cutting and chopping of vegetables are going on else where; in the oottupara [kitchen] parippu is being fried in a massive vessel; sambar for dinner is getting ready on another stove.

It is lunch time and the sprawling Police Training College ground at Thycaud is packed. It is here that the food court has been set up for the 56th State School Arts Festival, one-of-its kind in Asia.

The fete that celebrates the best of talents, around 12,000 this time, from across the state, always attains epic proportions in terms of the food being prepared for the participants, teachers, department officials, volunteers and media. This year, the pandal, divided into 12 sections, can accommodate 3,000 people and, at least, 15,000 reach the pandal for food every day.

In addition to the results of the keenly fought competitions, participants of the festival look forward to the menu of the feast, with the payasam of the day being the high point. The man of the moment, the unassuming, genial Pazhayidom Mohanan Namboothiri has been the centre of attraction ever since he took over the mantle of catering for the festival in 2006.

As I sit down for a chat, the first question obviously is about the payasam for the coming day. “Vegetabale payasam.” Seriously? “Yes. It has all vegetables except bitter gourd! These vegetables are boiled and sautéed well in ghee to a particular consistency,” he says. Ambalapuzha palpayasam, unakkalari payasam and wheat payasam have already been served and up next are green gram dal payasam, neipayasam and a special payasam for diabetics using wheat.

Sambar is a constant for lunch and dinner, curries may vary – instead of avial there will be an erissery or theeyal, koottukari is replaced by kichadi or pachadi made of pineapple and banana. Muloshyam [made with green gram daal and any vegetable] and rasam is served usually for dinner. Pazhayidom and his team of 90 swing into action by 2 a.m. Sleep is a brief affair of two hours.

For breakfast, he usually serves poori, idiyappam, uppumavu, idli–sambar, and puttu–kadala. This time, chappathis from Poojappura Central jail will be served on one of the days. By the time lunch gets over, say by 3.30 p.m., the team is ready with evening snacks and tea. “Kozhukatta, bhajji, vattayapam, bonda and ela ada are the eats served for tea,” he says. Rice is served for dinner as well, with a different set of curries.

Cooking is done on 18 stoves out of the 24 that have been set up.

So, what’s the secret behind managing this massive kitchen? “Nothing...,” he says breaking into a laugh. “It is all about making the correct measurement. The count starts from 100 people. You need 12.5 kg of rice for 100 people. Similarly there is a specific measurement for each item and nothing can go wrong if that is pacca,” he says.

He adds: “For 100 people, we make 10 litre sambar, for which we need 1 kg tuvar dal and 1 kg lady’s finger. Each person gets about 100 ml sambar.”

Although he created a stir last year by announcing that he would never manage the kitchen for the arts festival, he couldn’t stop himself from coming again. “For me it is a social commitment. I have no anxieties about serving so many people. Problems will be there. But more the number, more the excitement,” says Pazhayidom who turns 60 this year.

On the legacy

He is a celebrity chef. People come to take photos and selfies, some troop in to appreciate him and interviews for the media never seem to end. For this native of Kurichithanam in Kottayam, catering was never in the scheme of things. After all he had a post graduation in physics! “I had many dreams, but there is no use thinking about it now. I just happened to assist the great Malamel Neelakandan Namboothiri who used to cook at youth festivals,” says Pazhayidom.

He stepped into the scene by managing the kitchen at the district science fair in Kottayam in 2005. The same teachers’ committee was in charge of the state arts festival at Ernakulam in 2006 and they entrusted the job to Pazhayidom. In addition to arts festivals, sports meets and science fairs, he is sought after to feed huge crowds at temple festivals and often travels abroad during Onam to cook for the Malayali diaspora. The largest of them all was a staggering 65,000 who turned up on a single day at Chettikulangara Devi Temple for a religious discourse.

But he says he can’t cook for a small crowd. “Definitely not for my family of four! I just can’t work in terms of small measures of half teaspoons or tablespoons. I really appreciate all those manage to do that!” he says.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2021 4:35:19 PM |

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