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Talking food with Arusuvai Arasu Natarajan

Arusuvai Arasu Natarajan PHOTO: RAHULNATH S.R.

Arusuvai Arasu Natarajan PHOTO: RAHULNATH S.R.  

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Arusuvai Arasu Natarajan has wielded the ladle for 83 years and served lakhs of meals at nearly 75,000 weddings. He speaks to SUBHA J RAO about his journey

Natarajan, a little boy of 11, was helping his grandfather Subramania Iyer in the kitchen. He was a few years into the job, and had just learnt an important lesson — when fingers sting after snapping the stalks off red chillies, extract the juice of tamarind to soothe them.

He was to find out another that day. Steaming cauldrons of rice and sambar were sending up wispy, fragrant curls in the firewood-scented kitchen. And, then, young Natarajan was asked to put the ladies finger in the kadai, to make poriyal. He lifted with difficulty the eight kilograms of chopped vegetables, dropped them into a vessel and added some water for good measure. Within minutes, the panicking lad prostrated in front of his grandfather. “Ennada payale?” he asked. And, then, smiling, taught him to convert the gooey mass into a delectable kootu.

Nearly eight decades later, the boy, whose name has since been prefixed with Arusuvai Arasu, goes down nostalgia lane. His eyes glint with the memory of the day he learnt his greatest lesson — there must be no mistakes in cooking, but when you commit one, think out of the box to set it right.

It was because of this fierce desire to learn that a boy from an impoverished family of cooks made a mark for himself. “I started off when I was seven or eight years, working at the Sankara Mutt in Kumbakonam, helping my grandfather. I would sweep, clean, wash… My constant refrain used to be, ‘Mama, naan panraen’,” smiles Natarajan.

He worked as a server at Modern Hotel, Trichy, and handled 32 seats at a go. “I would recite all the items by rote… idli, dosai, poori, pongal…” He later joined Ambi Iyer hotel and Adikudi hotel. He also worked for wedding caterers, because it brought in more money, and also taught him how to scale up a recipe and handle large crowds.

He moved to Madras in 1952 and worked in MIT hostel, Chromepet, before Jayaram Iyer brought him to Geetha Café, Pondy Bazaar. There, he whipped up tiffin, and his favourite, saapad. “I loved cooking rasam, white pumpkin sambar… creating a meal is joyous, day in and day out.”

In 1956, M.N. Sambamoorthy Iyer offered Natarajan his first opportunity in wedding catering at 121, Varadamuthiyappan Theru Chatram.

“There’s been no looking back since. We’ve done close to 75,000 weddings as a family, and the children are taking the legacy forward,” he says.

People referred us by ‘taste of mouth’, says Natarajan, and points out to an old photograph on the wall taken at his wedding.

A young couple of very moderate means looks towards the future. “Now, see this one,” he says, of the photograph of his late wife Nagalakshmi — decked in jewellery and glowing with prosperity. “I cooked for a living; cooking gave me life.”

Natarajan still reveres the kitchen and every ladle and vessel there. “Cooking is a divine act. It’s more than just putting together spices and vegetables to create a delicious dish. It’s a job you do with your heart,” says Natarajan, who respects every cook who looks at his job thus.

“Once, there was a wedding in Palghat that I had to attend. I was told to go to the room where the payasam was being made. I entered it at 9 a.m. The elderly gentleman, who was stirring the fragrant mix of rice, milk and jaggery in a huge vessel atop a wood fire, stood at the same spot till 4 p.m. Finally, he prayed to the payasam, threw in a few tulsi leaves and stood still. He was nothing less than God because cooking is divine.”

Natarajan has seen the decades pass and new technology take over the kitchen — from the time of soot-filled workspaces where cooks blew air into wood-fired ovens, where the kitchen floor had to be constantly cleared of ash and tiny embers of coal, to today’s clinically-clean steam-fired kitchens and gas-fired stoves. “This is very convenient, but can anything match the fragrance of food cooked over a wood fire? Never,” he pronounces.

And “nothing can beat the individual flavour and taste of South Indian vegetables such as bittergourd, ridgegourd and snakegourd”.

As for Natarajan, his favourites are rasam, avaraikkai poriyal, white pumpkin sambar and ashoka halwa.

Even today, at 90, Natarajan goes to the office on Raja Badar Road, T. Nagar, every day. Occasionally, he visits wedding halls too.

Last week, he was at Rani Meiyammai Hall in Egmore, at 8 in the morning, trademark white khadi veshti, shirt and thundu in place, his forehead smeared with vibhuti. He walked about the kitchen, checking how the vegetables were being chopped, the fruits peeled, and the meal served. He borrowed a ladle from a helper and fried a batch of colocasia.

And then, unable to resist the temptation, he headed to the dosa counter. With a sure hand, he cleaned the tawa, poured some batter and shaped it diligently. In went the ghee, and seconds later, crisp dosas were ready to be served.

The legacy

The next two generations of Natarajan’s family have joined the business. His eight children, daughters-in-law and grandchildren handle various aspects of it. The menu has grown to include North Indian, Mexican and Italian dishes. They’ve even catered abroad — son Sridhar took a team to Australia, and next month, a group heads to Indonesia.

Natarajan says his eldest son Kumar is also a teacher of sorts; “he introduced me to many things and his approach is very different”. Sridhar manages the show and Sowmya Ramesh, his youngest daughter, ensures the weddings are eco-friendly.

They now serve sweets and juices in fortified paper cups or in containers made from sugarcane extract.

Over the years, they have kept the traditional meal alive, sometimes educating clients on what works for the occasion. Where Natarajan still works his magic is in deciding the menu. He’s a whiz at conjuring new combinations using traditional ingredients.

Some things have stayed the same at Arusuvai Arasu Caterers. Surya Raja, resident vada maker, has been making these delicious treats for more than 30 years; Prabhu is the expert on sweets.

The cooks and serving staff have been with them for long; so have those supplying grocery, milk and banana leaf. “We’ve all grown together,” says Natarajan.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 11:28:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Talking-food-with-Arusuvai-Arasu-Natarajan/article14425916.ece

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