Kovilpatti kadalai mittai: A home-made sweet that has gone global

The story goes that in the 1940s, Ponappa Nadar of Kovilpatti, who was running a small sweet stall, saw a business opportunity in a sweet made in every home — hand-pounded jaggery with groundnuts. The resultant sticky dough was pressed into small balls ready to be eaten. This could be stored only for a day or two. Ponappa Nadar tried various methods to increase its shelf-life.

By trial and error, jaggery was boiled in water and after it reached a certain consistency, he added groundnuts and to enhance the taste a smattering of cardamom. This mixture was then hand-pressed onto sheets and when cooled, cut into pieces that were sold for one paisa. The narrow strips that came as waste from the sheets were sold in front of schools and these cut pieces have now become a sleeper hit. Of the 30,000 kg of kadalai mittai ( chikkis) being sold daily from Kovilpatti in the present day Thoothukudi district, cut pieces account for 20,000 kg.

The three people who worked at Ponappa Nadar’s unit moved on to start their units. Now, the bylanes of this town resound with the clicking and clatter of more than 100 units making the famous ‘Kovilpatti Kadalai Mittai’. A sweet cloying smell permeates these streets as litres of jaggery is boiled and at intervals one can breathe in the spicy smell of cardamom. For those travelling through this region, it is a common sight to see children, men and women selling chikkis near toll gates and bus stands.

In 2020, Kovilpatti Kadalai Mittai got its Geographical Indication (GI) tag. K. Kannan, secretary, Kovilpatti Kadalai Mittai Manufacturing and Retailing Association, says the body has 45 members, and 24 have even got individual GI tags. As there are numerous household units making this sweet, the Association ensures they are made in a GI-compliant manner.

The jaggery is usually sourced from Salem and Theni, but it is the groundnuts that make all the difference, says Vijaykumar, a groundnut dealer. “Maybe it is the clayey soil, maybe it is the arid climate that the region boasts of or maybe it is the water in this region, we just cannot pinpoint but as a whole the chikki made here tastes very different from the rest made in other places,” he adds.

Hard times: Apart from the labour problem, the increase in the prices of raw materials has hit the manufacturers hard.

Hard times: Apart from the labour problem, the increase in the prices of raw materials has hit the manufacturers hard. | Photo Credit: N. RAJESH

The groundnuts grown in areas around Kovilpatti such as Kazhumalai, Sathankulam and Arppukottai have more sweet content than oil content, hence they are perfect for this candy, he says. The groundnuts are procured almost daily and is not stored as it may turn acrid. This is possible in the region as farming is a year-round process. If farmers in one locale go for ‘aadi pattam’, on the other side farmers go in for an ‘avani pattam’, and some ‘protassi pattam’. Every day, 20,000 kg of groundnuts are bought in Kovilpatti for making kadalai mittai.

Earlier, it was a manual process. To break one bag of groundnuts and to clean the skin it would take a few hours and five workers. Now the units have gone in for semi-mechanisation with the breaking, skin-removal and toasting being done mechanically. But making the jaggery syrup, mixing the groundnuts, rolling it out and cutting is still a manual labour. The huge clay ovens used for this purpose are fired by matchstick waste generated during the splint-making process. Kovilpatti has numerous matchmaking units and the waste generated here keeps the ovens of the candy-makers burning at the desired temperature.

Apart from the usual labour problem faced by small scale units (of floating workers), the increase in the prices of raw materials keeps the manufactures on toes. Mr. Kannan says that when he started his unit in 1999, a bag of groundnuts (80 kg) was being sold at ₹450; now it is ₹8,800. One kg of jaggery was then ₹10; but now it sometimes touches ₹100. Now, one kg of kadalai mittai are being sold for ₹150 in the wholesale market. With people also asking for organic products, the rate again spirals. More than the local customers, buyers from abroad ask for organic chikkis made from ‘ nattusakkarai’ and palm jaggery, Mr. Kannan says, citing one of his buyers in Saudi Arabia. Some manufacturers have started tapping into this clientele.

Packaging is also making a difference. For families down south, the marriage of the last son entails serving of this candy. Earlier, a groundnut candy ball was one of the items on the spread placed on banana leaves to be served at lunch. Now families want it to be heart-shaped and wrapped with the picture of the bride and groom. This ‘in’ thing now jostles with the ubiquitous coconut and betel leaf given in gift bags to attendees at a wedding.

Around 5,000 families are directly involved in this industry and 15,000 families are indirectly involved. The manufacturers are hoping that the recent announcement — made by Minister for Rural Industries T.M. Anbarasan, of a proposal to create minor clusters of GI-tagged kadalai mittai manufacturers of Kovilpatti — would bear fruit soon.

According to A. Swarnalatha, General Manager, District Industries Centre, Thoothukudi, a search is on to find land at Moopanpatti to set up a cluster. A consortium of 20 candy manufacturers has been formed and they would buy the land. As the cluster is going to be completely mechanised, the government will provide funds for the machinery and the building. A sum of ₹7 crore has been allocated for this project, for which a detailed project report is ready.

Mr. Kannan and the other manufacturers are betting big on this cluster to exploit the export market. They also hope the government would include the nutritious Kovilpatti kadalai mittai in the noon-meal scheme. The Association wants the government to establish of a FSSAI-accredited laboratory in Kovilpatti. Now the manufacturers have to go to Madurai to get their products tested and certified.

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Printable version | Oct 4, 2022 8:03:51 am |