Whereever South Indians go, we are there,” says K.V. Vijayaraghavan, managing partner of Ambika Appalams, a wide smile escaping his otherwise stern face. That sure is reassuring for the thousands of southerners settled away from home and across the world. For nearly a century now, numerous households have banked on Ambika’s appalams to enhance the flavour of their meals. “It was started by my grandfather Aiyappan around 1915. But it didn’t have a name then. He functioned out of his 850 sq. ft. house in Triplicane and made papadums with the help of his mother. You know papadums?” he asks and explains, “They are Kerala-style and swell like pooris when fried…different from appalams.” As we trace the history of the family-run brand, meeting at the family’s home — a dark blue bungalow just across Ambika Departmental Store on Dr. Nair Road, T. Nagar — Vijayaraghavan informs me that once his father had enough money he bought over the Triplicane house as that’s where everything began. “It’s still there and remains locked. We bought this bungalow in 1973 and apart from my family, all my shops’ staff stay here as well.”
Forced by poverty and propelled by the need to find a source of living, Aiyappan moved to Chennai from Trichur. He sold around 10 bundles per day, each comprising 100 papadums. “My father, K.A. Velayudham, then joined him. He discontinued his education in the VII grade and started making papadums and would ride around on a bicycle selling them,” says Vijayaraghavan.
Appalams were then added to the menu. Gradually, Velayudham took full charge, and by 1945, he hired labourers, and in 1956, the brand was titled Ambika Appalam Depot. In 1960, their store came up in Mylapore. By 1965, the brand diversified and included vattal, sambar and rasam powder, puliyodarai mix, idli podi, poondu podi and other essential traditional South Indian food products. “With people always making their own ingredients, it was initially difficult to sell them. But then there were those who moved to the city from villages for jobs and finding raw ingredients was a hassle, so they started buying these products. It’s picked up in the last 30 years. And now, with nuclear families and working couples, it’s become even more popular,” he adds.
Ambika Appalam has six outlets in the city, with a new one coming up in Anna Nagar, and two factories which produce 45 tonnes of appalams per month. In 1990, they experimented with the departmental store format. A trip to Singapore left Vijayaraghavan fascinated with the concept, and by 2000, more of their stores were converted.
Their products are exported all over the world. The first country they exported to was Malaysia in 1990. Now appalams are exported to the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada… It might be part of traditional saapad here but in the U.K. it’s a popular appetiser at bars. “The thing with appalam is that it has the ability to absorb all the smell around. That’s why couriering the products the first few times was a hassle. Then we learnt how to package it,” he says.
It’s interesting to note that over the years as the brand evolved and different generations took over, the packaging style also changed. “My grandfather used lotus and banana leaves to wrap the papads. My father used brown paper and then plastic and I introduced food grade plastic and the kind of packing that you see now,” says Vijayaraghavan, who joined the business in 1975.
“I was 20 then. Sitting in the shop was entertainment for me because quite a few actors would visit.” “President R. Venkataraman once wrote in the Rashtrapati Bhavan menu that South Indian food should be served with Ambika Appalam,” he claims.
The recipes for the papadums and applams have remained the same over the years. “My father used to put in a few grains of raw urad dal in his mouth, chew on it and tell if it would make for a good batch of appalams or not,” says Vijayaraghavan, adding, “Generations of clients have been coming to us. Even if we slip up, they can tell the difference and bring it up with me.”
The fourth generation has also joined the company — his son Vyas. “There are 55 varieties of products; the volume keeps increasing. I have asked him to modernise things. We are already available on Amazon and eBay and now will soon be having our own retail portal,” he says.