Food

A crunchy success story

C. Subbaiah, proprietor of Karpaga's Murukku Company, Aranthangi, has been in the business for over 30 years. Photos: Nahla Nainar   | Photo Credit: Nahla Nainar

Manapparai has, well, hogged the headlines when it comes to its crisp murukkus, but Aranthangi may well prove to be a worthy competitor. For the municipal town in Pudukottai district (population as of 2011: 40,814), has as many as 34 companies involved in the business of these deep-fried snacks, a south Indian staple with many regional variations and names, that travel as far as the United States and the Gulf countries.

The local Chamber of Commerce lists ‘murukku-making’ as a separate division, and visitors to the asbestos-roofed sheds of Karpaga’s Murukku Company can meet proprietor C. Subbiah, who also serves as vice-president of the Chamber, and the cottage industry’s representative there.

“We have been in this line for the past 31 years,” says the soft-spoken Subbiah, as he keeps a keen eye on the activities in the cooking and packing sections of the work area. As it emerges, ‘murukku’ (twist in Tamil) is a blanket term that covers a variety of other sweet and savoury eats that are still made by hand and sold all over the state in vast quantities.

“We make adirasams, madakku paniarams and murukkus, and sell them through five bakeries here. At one stage, our murukkus were going up to Karaikal, Vedharanyam, Nagapattinam, Nagore and Thiruvarur, but after many workers left, I’ve stuck to supplying within the town,” says Subbiah.

Defying the popularity of pre-packaged snack-foods (mostly potato-based) made by multinational companies, Aranthangi’s rice flour- and jaggery-based nibbles have made their link to tradition their unique selling point. “Many of the Aranthangi natives who work in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia and United States tend to buy our snacks to take back with them after vacations here,” says Subbiah. “Several people place large orders for marriages or religious rites.”

Subbiah says he has started adapting recipes and production to suit modern health concerns.

After frying, all the products at Karpaga’s are put through a centrifugal device that drains off the excess oil, and prolongs its shelf life by up to three weeks. “This also makes the murukku lighter on the stomach,” claims Subbiah.

Subbiah sources his ‘maavu mix’ (a mixture of rice flour and urad dal powder) from a mill in Madurai for his murukkus, to which he adds salt, sesame and cumin. Vegetable shortening is added at the end to make a silky, pliable dough in an electrical mixer. “We have to use the murukku dough within half an hour of its preparation, otherwise it becomes rancid,” says Subbiah. On a busy day, his company can produce up to 120 kilos of the snacks, worth around Rs.15,000.

A fire accident in 1996 nearly brought Karpaga’s to its knees, but Subbiah says it led to a new period of growth, and safety measures. “We have redesigned the kitchen, installed proper vents and also given up kerosene stoves,” he says. Instead, the fires in the floor-embedded earthen stoves are fuelled by peanut shells, which ensure more stable temperatures for frying.

With his two sons opting for regular jobs, Subbiah and his wife Parameshwari, are grooming their daughter and son-in-law to take over the concern eventually.

Personal touch

Large cloth-lidded brass cauldrons containing at least two months’ worth of adirasam dough are lined up against the wall of Sri Raja’s Murukku, a company that operates on a ‘no-door’ policy. “My shop has no door, because customers can walk in at any time, buying for Rs.5 or Rs.5000,” says Raja, the jeans-clad proprietor of the 17-year-old business. Raja’s menu offers a selection of murukkus (flavoured with garlic, green gram, roasted gram, rice flour and coconut milk) and adirasams made of jaggery and refined sugar.

All the mixes are prepared personally by Raja, “because a mistake could spoil everything in a minute,” he says.

For a man who started out selling re-packaged savoury ‘mixture’ on buses for Re.1, and spent around six years learning the ropes before setting out on his own in the murukku business, Raja wears his prosperity lightly. “Even though tastes are changing, we are still seeing a steady demand for native snacks,” he says. “My products are costlier, because I use expensive ingredients. We supply to stores in Pudukottai and Tiruchi regularly.” His last order was worth Rs.40,000 for a marriage in Tiruchi, where he supplied 2000 each of murukkus and adirasams in December 2014. He also makes undertakes orders for travellers going abroad, and offers diet-friendly options.

With profits touching Rs.4 lakhs last Deepavali, Raja is in no mood to change his recipe for success. “I don’t want to diversify, I just want to look after the 10 female staff who have been with the company since it started,” he says. “I don’t employ male staff because it is difficult to maintain discipline.”

Asked why he doesn’t go for automation, Raja says that the basic doughs for both murukku and adirasam react differently to the heat produced by electric mixers. “They get slightly cooked, and the taste changes,” he says, showing us the paddle-shaped wooden spatula that he uses to manually mix on average, 10 kilos of rice flour and 6 kilos of jaggery dissolved and cooked to a syrup for adirasams. “We must make sure that every item is consistent in taste and appearance.”

As to whether he’d ever jump on to the e-commerce wagon, Raja replies in the negative. “We have enough business offline, online is not practical,” he says.


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Printable version | Jun 8, 2021 12:13:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Food/a-crunchy-success-story/article6793967.ece

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