CHENNAI : In 1968, a newly married, 18-year-old Girija Venkatachalam was asked by her mother-in-law to fry papadums. Little did she know that Girija had never cooked before. A clueless Girija stepped into the kitchen, overheated the oil and quite carelessly dropped a piece of papadum into the hot oil — it splattered over her and she had an oil burn. When her mother-in-law found out about the kitchen mishap, she said, “If you didn’t know to cook, you should have told me. Here, let me teach you.”
That was the beginning of Girija’s culinary journey. Now, fifty years later, the sexagenarian has embarked on an entrepreneurial journey by launching ‘Girija Paati’s home foods’. We caught up with Girija at her house in Anna Nagar, and over a tumbler of hot filter coffee and a plate of her home-cooked sweet boondi and kara sev, we discussed her journey and the new role.
“I was the eldest child in my family, but I had never cooked. Once I got married, and after the unfortunate kitchen fiasco, my mother-in-law-started teaching me the nuances of cooking. I used to be more of prep and/or sous chef; I used to observe her. Later, I started experimenting in the kitchen. I began cooking and making homemade snacks, pickles and podis,” shares Girija.
Just about a year ago, Girija discussed the idea of starting her own label with her son and daughter-in-law, and the rest is history. “I have been making these south Indian snacks for relatives, friends and family for years now and I wanted to try and take it to the others too. I discussed the idea with them and it slowly took shape,” says Girija.
The label is just a few months old but, the homemade sweets and snacks brand has already made heads turn in the city. “I prepare everything at home and the ingredients are hand-picked. There’s no compromise when it comes to quality. I also make it a point to add healthy alternatives or add-ons in the sweets and snacks,” she says.
Girija has seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren who love her and her cooking to bits. “I also make pasta, Thai curry and smoothie bowls for them. I sometimes try to update myself with new styles and cuisines by watching online videos. Though my grandchilren are from the current generation, they all seem to like the old 50-year-old recipes which I follow,” she grins.For instance, she adds Kollu (horse gram) in Paruppu podi and jaggery instead of sugar in most sweets. “She makes every dish with love and care, just the way she makes it for her grandchildren,” shares her daughter-in-law.
The family’s spacious modular kitchen is filled with huge stainless steel dabbas, packed with Girija’s freshly made sweet boondi and snacks. Clad in a bright mustard and maroon cotton saree, Girija stood there, embodying the ethos of traditional cooking in a modern setting. “She spends about six hours in the kitchen and the rest of the day with the team, working on packaging and other aspects as well as bonding with them on a personal level,” adds her daughter-in-law.
Her signature dishes include maaladu, milagai curry, dates-nuts ball, and mixture snack. “All these years of experience come handy when I have to make a snack. I don’t have to use a scale or systematically measure the ingredients...it’s mostly intuitive,” Girija says.
Like most old-timers, Girija knows that food is the way to a person’s heart, and shows her love for her family through cooking. That, she says is her relationship with food. Girija Paati’s Bisi Bele Baath with Masala Potato is a favourite of her three brothers, especially, of the popular producer Kalpathi Aghoram. She often makes these items for their joint Sunday lunches, which are a must, every week for the three brothers and two sisters. “We are a family of about 40 people.
So, cooking for so many people has equipped me with the skills to take up bulk orders,” she laughs. She doesn’t describe cooking merely as her passion, but as an integral part of her life. Ask her what she feels about becoming an entrepreneur at 68, and she unassumingly says, “I just like to cook. Becoming an entrepreneur has made me happy, and it is exciting that my cooking has reached beyond my family.”
Girija will be launching a Sweet Karam subscription box in January 2019. “The boxes will weigh one kilo and will have one variety of sweet, karam, podi and pickle. The bigger box will have two varieties of sweets and snacks, and one podi and pickle,” explains her daughter-in-law. The price of the box starts at `1000 and individual products from `250.
Girija Venkatachalam stays healthy by balancing good food with an active lifestyle. She goes walking twice a day, five days a week and has been doing yoga in a park for the last 15 years. She also loves gardening.