A signature dish of Sattur

This snack is part and parcel of Tamils. A bite of karasev enhances the taste of even an insipid coffee or tea

Updated - July 01, 2022 11:02 am IST

Published - June 30, 2022 10:09 pm IST

This snack industry is labour-intensive, with no scope for mechanisation.

This snack industry is labour-intensive, with no scope for mechanisation. | Photo Credit: G. MOORTHY

Some time around 1910, a young man from Tamil Nadu developed a liking for sev, a Gujarathi snack. Shunmuganathan Nadar, a native of Sattur in the present day Virudhunagar district, was then dabbling in the nascent food industry, preparing peanut chikkis and nanari sharbat.

He thought of tweaking this sev, which in its original form was a bland chickpea flour-based salty snack. For the South Indian palette, it needed to be spicier. For that, he added the hot red chillies grown in the region around Sattur. This, combined with a dash of mountain garlic that he sourced from the Western Ghats, was enough to give a piquant taste to the savoury and thus making it native to the region.

In 1914, he set up the M.S. Shanmuganadar Mittai Kadai and kara sev became its signature dish that went on to be replicated by other sweet stalls in and around Sattur. They now jostle for space with other major players like Sri Shanmuga Vilas Sweets and Bakery and Lala Sweet.

Before the bypass side-stepped the little town, all buses traversing the region had to take the National Highway that almost bifurcated Sattur. As soon as the bus reached the outskirts of the town, on either side of the road one could see pale yellow pyramids of this snack, with strands precariously hanging from mounds that almost hid the facade of these shops. It was a pit stop and many commuters would run up to these shops to get a little packet of this spicy nibble. It was a wonder how these shopkeepers could deftly take a bit from the towering mass without the fragile tower coming crashing down.

Arumugasamy, who now runs the iconic M. S. Shanmuganadar Mittai Kadai on Pillayar Kovil Street, says this snack is now part and parcel of Tamils. A bite of this kara sev enhances the taste of even an insipid coffee or tea. “It is woven into the fabric of our lives. There are many expatriates who come to our shop and get packets of the sev. Each time they take a bite of this in their homes abroad, they are hit by nostalgia,” he adds.

He tells of clients who come ordering this to complete a birthday celebration. There are others who see to it that it is part of the trousseau that the bride takes to her marital home. Later, this kara sev peeks out in the baby shower package. He also says that for many, it takes an important place in the special food that families prepare to remember their dear and departed ones.

In many South Indian households, kara sev rests cheek by jowl with pappads as accompaniment for curd rice. For those who love a bit fierier taste, there is the pepper kara sev.

Shunmuganathan, 30, who has done his masters in engineering in Aachen in Germany, is the fourth generation member who is looking after the business with his father Mr. Arumugasamy, uncle and cousin. During his stint in Aachen, home to chocolate and candy manufacturing, Mr. Shunmuganathan realised this traditional snack had to be packaged right if they had to foray into the growing online space. “To broaden the base of young generation customers, this native savoury has to compete with junk food. To do so, packaging had to be made more attractive. Now, our packaging is not just eye-catching but also has the potential to keep the product fresh for five months,” he says, adding this helps in the export market. They get orders from the U.S., and have a distribution chain in the Middle East.

This snack industry is labour-intensive and mechanisation has not been possible. Shunmuganathan says most machines used for preparing snacks are hydraulic. But for kara sev, a right amount of softness is needed to add to the crispiness. Their unit employs around 60 workers, who work in shifts and churn out five tonnes of kara sev a month. In the wholesale market, it is sold at ₹300 a kg.

Crispy process

The making process, which looks deceptively simple, is completed by afternoon. Sattur red chilli, along with a paste of mountain garlic, a hint of asafoetida, and a smatter of cumin is mixed in water. It is in this mixture that the chickpea flour is kneaded. A little amount of rice powder is added to this paste to give the much-needed crunch to the snack. The master then literally grates this dough using a perforated ladle into the groundnut oil bubbling in a cauldron where it is fried to perfection.

This industry also has a symbiotic relationship with another industry that this region is known for: the match manufacturing units. To keep the fire cackling in the open baked mud stoves, the waste from the matchbox making industry is used. The embers from the very fine thin wood keeps the temperature right.

There are very many households making this savoury and selling it to the local shops.

Steps are under way to get a GI tag for Sattur kara sev. According to Shunmuganathan, NABARD is helping them. “We do not want to lose our identity because of late many manufacturers from other regions are making kara sev and selling it using the Sattur tag. The first step we are working on is to bring all the manufacturers in Sattur under one association that is exclusively for kara sev,” he adds.

T. Gangatharn, who is also the fourth generation member of the family that runs Sri Shanmuga Vilas Sweets and Bakery, says, “It is time we make Sattur synonymous with kara sev. Just like Tirunelveli is known for its halwa and Kovilpatti for its chikkis. The name Sattur should also invoke in our mind this all-time favourite snack.”

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