Soft Focus Food

Where ‘military’ meant meat-eating

Every January, the Naidu clan gathers at Muniyandi temple in Vadakkampatti to offer thanks to the eponymous deity.   | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

It was in 1930 that Harland Sanders started selling steaks and fried chicken from his room near the service station he ran in North Corbin, Kentucky; the beginning of the legendary Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.

Only five years later, in our own Tamil Nadu, a desi version of a hugely popular restaurant chain sprung up in a remote village in Madurai. It was started to serve simple ‘military’ meals to farmers and workers, with ‘military’ being the euphemism for non-vegetarian food. Its USP was mutton biriyani and its guardian angel was Muniyandi, a village deity.

Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district had been hit by successive droughts in the 30s, and the residents of Vadakkampatti were looking for new ways to earn. M.V.S. Subba Naidu, a born entrepreneur who had already experimented with a ‘hotel’ (the local word for eatery) in the 1920s, now kicked off a new eatery in 1935. Muniyandi Vilas turned out to be a roaring success.

Soon, the entire Naidu clan from 48 villages around Tirumangalam joined their Vadakkampatti brethren to partake in the good idea. Venkatachalam Naidu started another one in Villupuram, Ayodhi Naidu in Pudukottai, Srinivasan Naidu in Puducherry, Rangasamy Naidu in Tiruvarur, Alagarsamy Naidu in Pattukottai, Ayyappan Naidu in Tiruchi, Suruli Narayanasamy Naidu in Tiruthuraipoondi, M.S.R. Naidu in Kanchipuram and Krishnan Naidu in Dharapuram.

After the Naidus came the Reddiars and then the Mukkulathors. The restaurants almost always employed only family and extended family members, who would later become owners of new outlets elsewhere once they had mastered the nuances of the business.

Two thousand plus

All the outlets had a distinct board, painted in red, with ‘Sri Karuppusamy Thunai’ written on top. Soon, Muniyandi Vilas had grown into a chain that dotted every Tamil Nadu town and extended outside. At its peak, there were roughly 2,000 Muniyandi Vilas hotels across Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.

Muniyandi is one of the names of Muneeswarar, believed to be an incarnation of Shiva. Muniyandi, strangely, given his provenance, is considered vegetarian. But his guard, Karuppusamy, who is like the restaurant mascot, is a meat eater. “At our annual get-togethers at the Vadakkampatti temple, we offer vegetarian food to Muniyandi and mutton to Karuppusamy,” says S.R. Jayarakshagan, whose family, starting 1953, ran one of the oldest Muniyandi Vilas hotels in Tiruvarur.

Every year in January, the Naidus gather at Muniyandi temple in Vadakkampatti to offer thanks to the deity who “gave them everything”. The highlight of the ritual, which turned 81 this year, is a community biriyani feast. In fact, with mud taken from the Vadakkampatti temple, many other Muniyandi temples have been constructed in villages like Achampatti, Sengapadai and Pudupatti.

Every January, the Naidu clan gathers at Muniyandi temple in Vadakkampatti to offer thanks to the eponymous deity. The highlight of the ritual, which turned 81 this year, is a community biriyani feast.

Every January, the Naidu clan gathers at Muniyandi temple in Vadakkampatti to offer thanks to the eponymous deity. The highlight of the ritual, which turned 81 this year, is a community biriyani feast.   | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

In the 70s and 80s, the Muniyandi Vilas brand was riding the crest of its popularity. The rich and the famous, film stars and political leaders, they had all eaten here. “We never used the meat of any animal except the goat,” says A.K.V.A. Kannan, whose family owned one of the most famous Muniyandi Vilas hotels in Tiruchi, which dates to 1956. “Mutton biriyani was our specialty. Chicken entered the menu only much later. Even then, we only used native breeds. The spices we used were of the finest quality, and all food dyes and pastes were made by the family members in the traditional way.”

There is one routine that all Muniyandi Vilas hotels follow even today. “After spreading sambrani smoke (frankincense) around the room, we place a board announcing ‘Saappadu Ready’ outside the hotel at 11 a.m. and open the doors. The service goes on till 11 p.m.”

Besides its biriyani, Muniyandi Vilas was famous for mutton fry and ‘specials’ such as ‘kola urundai’ made of mutton. “Our rasam was also very famous. We made it from the essence of boiled meat using hand-ground ingredients,” says Jayarakshagan.

Working lunch

Wedding feasts for the Cauvery Delta farmers used to be vegetarian affairs until Muniyandi Vilas came to town. “Farmers first began to order our food for weddings; slowly, the habit permeated to all family functions and even post-harvest celebrations,” says Jayarakshagan.

Although it had famous clients, the eatery had opened shop to cater to farmers and the working class. “We priced the dishes moderately, without looking for big profits,” says T.R. Pandiaraj, president of Vadakkampatti Naidu Sangam, who settled down in Chennai after winding up the Muniyandi Vilas he had started in 1968 in Vridhachalam. A full meal in 1953 used to cost 50 paise and any ‘extra item’ was priced at 20 to 30 paise. “We introduced cooking gas and grinders only in 1968,” says Kannan. Workers would wake up before dawn and begin chopping onions by 4 a.m.

In a unique move, the owners started to let textile hawkers from Thanjavur stay for free in the first floor rooms of their eateries in the big towns. “They were actually our brand ambassadors,” says R. Suresh of Chennai. These salesmen and farm workers were the secret to the huge patronage the brand enjoyed in the Cauvery Delta region. The eateries were not positioned along highways but always deep inside the towns, yet people would come searching for them.

Sadly, Muniyandi Vilas is a dying brand today, with just about 300 outlets left. Its biggest handicap? The impression it had created from the beginning that it was not meant for “fine dining”. The interiors always looked shabby, the furniture was not trendy, and waiters were never in uniform. By catering mainly to the working classes, it had shut itself to the upwardly mobile. Its owners didn’t keep pace with technology nor advertise the brand. The number of outlets dropped sharply, and even existing ones began to use new names.

“The wealth we earned from our hotels made us diversify into other businesses; besides we got our children educated,” says Kannan. The younger generation has stayed out of what is seen as a down-market enterprise. Even the ones passionate about the brand gave up in the face of fierce competition and real estate wars. “We had not bothered about our ancestral properties. Now, we run from lawyer to court in search of registration deeds for our lands, gobbled up by real estate sharks,” says Jayarakshagan.

Today, the annual festival at their Vadakkampatti temple is mostly a walk down memory lane for clan members, with only a few still running Muniyandi Vilas ‘military hotels’. But the phrase remains etched in Tamil Nadu’s culinary dictionary.

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 11:42:28 PM |

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