Nambie Marak is in Rangsa, a village in Meghalaya’s West Khasi Hills. She walks towards the backyard green patch, where the local Rebok banana has been planted.
She’s going to make kalchi/khar (an alkaline liquid that tenderises meat) from the bark, and as she cuts it into thin strips for drying, she speaks about how food from Northeastern India has always been misunderstood. “A blogger had written about how we eat ash, that our food is bizarre. It is not,” she says. She burns the dried bark, stirs the ash in water and filters it to get the liquid that’s a staple in most homes. Thanks to Nambie’s Eat Your Kappa channel on YouTube, we also know that this variety of banana produces fruits with black seeds.
Down South, in Tenali, the legend of Mastanamma stands tall. She’s the lady with a toothless smile, who made watermelon chicken go viral. Since being posted on March 3, 2017, the video has had more than 1 crore views. Srinath Reddy, who runs the Country Foods channel along with Mastanamma’s great grandson, K Laxman, says that they have put out more than 200 videos, an average of two a week. What started as a way to record his friend’s great grandmother’s recipes, turned into a viral series.
Leaps and bounds
Marak and Mastanamma are among the growing set of YouTubers who have achieved fame by filming traditional recipes, shot in rural surroundings. The fish is caught fresh from a stream, the fruit plucked off trees, and the recipes, while simple, allow glimpses into an intriguing food culture.
Another such channel is Grandpa Kitchen with Narayana Reddy; he cooks in bulk and donates it to children. Then, there’s Arumugam of Village Food Factory, who cooks using every kind of meat and seafood.
All these videos bank on the nativity factor to grab eyeballs. The greenery, open fire and birdsong in the background are definite draws. The followers are not limited to India, either. Marak published the kalchi/khar video in September 2017 — it was a departure from her normal style, as she wanted people to learn the basics — and it attracted the attention of a large swathe of people. Canada-based Austin Lawrence, host of YouTube channel Heathen Hearth, has a Mohawk heritage and was curious to know more. This video started a discussion on how other cultures make a similar alkaline solution.
Country Foods’ star has been fun-loving Mastanamma, all of 106 years. However, now, the channel is trying to switch cuisines, because Mastanamma is not keeping well and they want to give her a little rest. “We plan to get village boys to try out Punjabi recipes. Our format is going to remain the same. Cook in an open field, ideally sourcing provisions locally,” says Srinath Reddy. The friends never expected to make a living working with Laxman’s great grandmother but Reddy says that they have had a good time collaborating. Among her popular recipes are brinjal curry and catla fish curry.
Twenty-nine-year-old communication trainer Marak belongs to the Garo tribe, and has family who are Khasi, Mizo and Bodo. She currently teaches in Coorg, but earlier lived in Chennai with husband Sunny Arokiadoss. She started posting videos on her channel in 2016. Named after the nourishing spicy curry ( kappa ) her mother made every other day, the channel is the result of her yearning for recipes from Northeastern India while living in Chennai. “As much as I love my Ambur biryani , masala dosa and filter coffee, I longed for home food. There were few quality videos online, and they catered to a specific community or tribe, and in that language. I saw the opportunity to demonstrate food that I grew up on, in a common language.” She gets views from the US, Bangladesh and Nepal, among others.
Marak says the channel also hopes to dispel misconceptions. “Usually, food from my region gets classified as ‘bizarre’. But dried fish, bamboo shoots and lye are a part of our food tradition.” That is why she also speaks about local culture in her videos.
Most of these YouTubers have monetised their channels, and a channel has the potential to make about ₹12 lakh a year in revenue, provided it puts out a series of videos that end up going viral, say those familiar with the subject.
While the videos are shot appealingly and designed to attract, how many watch them for the recipe is doubtful. Says Chef Sanjay Thumma, whose VahChef channel has nearly 12 lakh subscribers, “Most of these videos are about the creativity of the videomakers than the food. YouTube has opened the doors for many, and they make a living out of them. But, I think that if someone wants to learn a recipe, they will head to a channel manned by a regular cook.”
Thumma has a point. Some channels are more about cooking on a large scale, the attendant drama and measuring ingredients by the handful. And so, while they educate, they mostly entertain.
Veteran chef Sanjeev Kapoor, who has more than 21 lakh subscribers on Sanjeev Kapoor Khazana, says that any food knowledge is meant to be shared. “Social media provides easy access to information. Plus, these videos are a great way to bring into the limelight people’s culinary skills, which may have never surfaced who might have never come into come out, to the limelight. I just hope that they benefit from the monetisation too.” Most are run by family, and a collaborative effort.
When was the last time you sat down with your family to sort out vegetables or clean fish? Or, hunched in the middle of a field blowing into a firewood oven? That dose of reality could be a reason why these channels have managed to compete with sanitised kitchens and chefs with aprons.