Food

New sabha canteens take over from the old this Margazhi season

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This year, expect a fresh set of sabha canteen menus with new players in the kitchens, as some of the city’s most iconic cooks bow out

Chennai’s tradition of music festivals began in the 1930s, and canteens began to spring up at concert venues in the 1940s. Which means that the city’s sabha canteen tradition is now over 80 years old.

By the 1970s, these canteens had became crowd pullers. A number of iconic city cooks and caterers handled the kitchens, giving locals, NRIs and tourists a taste of skilfully made traditional fare with a side of warm hospitality. The vibe was like a family wedding than a professional restaurant, and customers multiplied.

Today, for caterers, these canteens are an efficient way to showcase their skills, and get signed on to cater weddings and other functions. “More than profit, which was wafer thin, it was publicity and brand building,” says Soumya Ramesh, daughter of legendary cook, the late Arusuvai Natarajan, who ran the prestigious Music Academy sabha canteen for six years, till 2007.

Now, with some of the most established names bowing out, the season promises to throw up some surprises.

New sabha canteens take over from the old this Margazhi season

LV Pattappa, who catered at The Music Academy last year, is visibly absent from the line-up. Sri Balaji Catering Services takes over the canteen at the academy this year, and is all set to serve millet-based snacks and palm jaggery sweets. Pattappa’s son Balaji, says even though it was gratifying to have appreciative customers, it was a challenge to feed everyone efficiently. “We could not keep up with serving customers continuously from 7 am to midnight,” he says, adding that it is also holiday season. “The staff is stressed out, and needs a break for at least two weeks in a year.”

He continues, “Besides, we have already committed to doing wedding catering this month. It is unusual for weddings to be conducted during Margazhi, but as these families — or many of their members — are NRIs, they prefer to have it coincide with Christmas vacations.”

Party season

There’s another trend keeping caterers busy. “These days, large gated communities with over 2,000 houses organise parties between December 25 and January 5. Catering for these takes up a lot of our time as well,” Balaji explains.

Mint Padmanabhan, who operated a canteen at The Music Academy after Arusuvai Natarajan, also opted out two years ago because December started getting busy. He says, “I have too many commitments this year, and I need to keep them with my regular customers. This month, I am catering for some 60th, 70th and 80th birthdays.” He adds, however, that he plans to return to the canteens next year or the year after. “Sabha canteens are not meant for profit-making; we do it as a seva for the rasikas,” Padmanabhan states.

New sabha canteens take over from the old this Margazhi season

Gnanambiga Caterers, who ran the margazhi canteen at Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha, Vani Mahal, for 15 years, have this year been replaced by Anu Catering Services, helmed by S Rangarajan. While Anu Catering has been around for 31 years, this is the first time they are at a sabha. Rangarajan says that he will begin with ela sappad for lunch, traditional snacks for tea time and the usual fare such as idli, dosa and khichdi for dinner. “I usually cater for events at Vani Mahal; this should be no different,” he says.

It’s been a long journey

Son of veteran Gnanambiga Jayaraman, Vittal Ramesh, who ran the canteen at Narada Gana Sabha for 25 years, also opted out. “The auditor R Krishnaswamy paved the way for us to set up the canteen. He was our guiding force, so when he passed away five years ago, we decided to stop the tradition as a mark of respect,” says Ramesh.

“We were unable to keep up with the increasing competition as well as the cost,” he says, adding, “We are used to making everything from scratch. No short-cuts or outsourcing.” Discussing how loyal his regular customers were, he adds, “Back then, there was no social media. People used to call the sabha office and ask for the canteen menu!”

He says, “We were considered a nuisance then, as our customers filled up the car park. The rush at the canteen became higher than the audience attending the concert! When I started, our customer base was around 1,000, but after 25 years it has risen considerably. I am thankful to the sabha for this growth.”

The line-up this year

    For new players, the sabha canteen can be immensely useful, as it generates a lot of publicity. K Srinivasan, son of Mountbatten Mani Iyer, who has been successfully running the canteen at Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, popular for its elaborate banana leaf lunches, for nine years, says that he gets a minimum of 50 new bookings every season.

    New sabha canteens take over from the old this Margazhi season

    Srinivasan says that he looks forward to the music season, as the one-month-long pop-up canteen teaches him valuable lessons. “Feedback is vital. I have a phone number clearly displayed at the venue for this purpose. If there are any negative comments about quality and pricing, I call them and find out the reason.”

    These canteens are an ideal launch pad for new caterers, as well as cooks who like to experiment for another reason: freedom. Unlike wedding catering, where the customer decides everything, over here cooks can test new recipes on an appreciative, and unabashedly honest, audience. “It is the best place to innovate and try new dishes,” Srinivasan smiles. This year, rasikas can taste his pori dosa (soaked puffed rice is ground along with the usual proportion of rice and urad dal), badam poli, Arcot makan peda, orange pulp burfi and a variety of millet idiyappams. “If it is well received, I recommend it to my wedding catering customers,” says Srinivasan.

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    Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 12:51:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/new-sabha-canteens-take-over-from-the-old-this-margazhi-season/article30318173.ece

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