Made in Madras Metroplus

The scent of a venture

The Madras Hing Trading Co., in George Town’s Govindappa Naicken Street. Photo: Akila Kannadasan  

It’s the kind of smell that can cut you off from the rest of the world. It swallows me like a fog, never to let go; so overpowering, that I’m drawn to its source by invisible strings. ‘The Madras Hing Trading Co.’, announces a small signboard on Govindappa Naicken Street in George Town, and I knock on an old-fashioned glass-fronted door to enter a world that dates back to 1943.

It all began when S. Ramaswamy Iyengar, an influential man in the area — he was president of the Madras Kirana Merchants Association — met with traders who bore precious cargo from as far afield as Kabul. The gum-like substance from the Ferula asafoetida tree, when combined with five other ingredients, could add a unique flavour to certain foods. Ramaswamy stocked the raw material and sold them at his shop in George Town. He went on to produce asafoetida cakes himself, and called his business venture ‘The Madras Hing Trading Co.’.

“But due to various reasons, it was taken over by N.S. Seshadri and then by Kamal Asher in 1999. Right now, it is run by Nitin and Amrish Asher,” explains Krishna Janakiraman, who manages the company.

(The Madras Hing Trading Co.'s MH asafoetida. Photo: Akila Kannadasan)

Asafoetida has one of the strongest smells on earth. Despite travelling thousands of kilometres from the plantations of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan to Chennai, it retains its defining character. That too, after changing several hands as it makes its way through our country. “The smell refuses to let go of me,” laughs Krishna, seated in his small office. “My daughter complains that even the bar of chocolate that I carry in my office bag smells of asafoetida.”

Their neighbour for over three decades, C.V. Ravi has seen the business grow since the days of Ramaswamy Iyengar. “Initially, he sold asafoetida wrapped in dried badam leaves,” he recalls. “The gum, which was called water- kabuli, would be transported in sheep-skin bags. Now of course, tins are used for the purpose.” Ravi adds that until the ‘70s, asafoetida was sold only in the cake form. “It’s now packaged as a powder, as well as in plastic boxes and packets.”

Despite being around for over 70 years, The Madras Hing Trading Co. has not expanded beyond counter sales. “But we manage to sell over 200 kg a day,” says Krishna. This is because of its loyal customer base. “The other day, a lady who walked in to buy from us said that she has been coming here since she was six.” He adds that they supply to papad companies such as Lijjat and to restaurants including Ratna Café.

Asafoetida was traditionally mixed by hand. Ravi says that the raw material, even in its diluted form, is strong enough to make the eyes smart. But even a pinch of it can enhance the flavour of dishes such as sambar or rasam, and is said to aid digestion. Krishna refuses to divulge details of the manufacturing process. All he says is, “A total of six components are mixed using a machine in our unit in West Mambalam. The technique is secret and so are the ingredients.” Can’t he give away even one of them? Krishna pauses for a moment: “The asafoetida gum.”


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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 8:22:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/made-in-madras-the-scent-of-a-venture/article8300170.ece

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