CHENNAI: Red rice puttu and coconut milk stew may be things you would automatically associate with Kerala and all its verdant expanse. But not after a good helping of some soft kuzhal puttu and kiri hodhi from Yalpanam by Serendip. If you have pol sambol and chicken curry to go with it, you’d be even more inclined to think about the verdant expanse on the other side of a different border. A venture by the homecooks of Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camps in the city, Yalapanam hopes to bring you a slice of their native cuisine and everything it entails. For what began as a coping mechanism during the pandemic and the job loss it brought along, is now a successful pop-up kitchen effort that has been delighting Chennaiites for seven months.
All this effort began with inspiration from a different pop-up from years ago, recollects Poongkothai Chandrahasan, director of OfERR (Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation) and the brains behind the venture. “In 2013, OfERR had a Sri Lankan pop-up dinner as a one-time fund-raising event. Since then, a lot of people told us to start something (like a cloud kitchen). Since we didn’t have any experience with food, we were hesitant. But, when the corona lockdown happened, a lot of people in the camps lost their livelihood. That was when a friend — a food critic — suggested that now would be a good time to start pop-up kitchen,” she narrates. With Serendip Boutique already working to empower Sri Lankan Tamil refugee women, giving them training and selling the products they make, it was only natural that this arm of OfERR to take up this initiative and get it rolling as well. Thus was born Yalpanam by Serendip, taking after the old Tamil name for Jaffna.
This time around, expertise was found right in their midst — members of the refugee camps (particularly in Puzhal and Gummidipoondi) who had spent considerable time in Sri Lanka and knew the taste of the land. “We’ve been identifying some of the older ladies. For example, there’s Basilica aunty; she is around 70 years old. She had been in Sri Lanka until she was 40 years old and then came here as a refugee in 1990. She had lost her husband and one of her children. Another child had to be left behind and she was actually reunited with her years later. Another gentleman we identified is Lawrence. He makes the milk toffees and coconut rocks. He is someone who faced torture in Sri Lanka. But he worked as a chef at the famous The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya. When he came here as a refugee, he couldn’t get a job and was working as a manual labourer. All the people we are working with are those who have really gone through a lot of trauma and hardship, faced so much during the civil war and then come across here. Now, they are all very happy that they are able to do what they love,” shares Poongkothai.
That love shows up in abundance in the food served week after week. From wambatu moju, beetroot curry, halo hodhi to seeni sambol, black pork curry and every sweet they have to offer, every dish comes with the promise of home-made love and handmade goodness. “Ellame pidicha saapadu dhan. (Every item is a dish we love). And we make it with the hope that everyone would love it too,” says Basilica. She learnt to cook at a young age by just watching her mother. Now, at the camp, she teaches younger women to make the food she grew up with, offering a slice of her childhood in the process..
It was all about finding the right person for the dish at hand, points out Poongkothai. “Lawrence can make milk toffee, coconut rocks and chippi but can’t make kalu dodol. So Dharshini and her mother make them. We have Sumathi akka who makes the arisi paniyaram; she is one of our Serendip producers also, making handcrafter jewellery. So, we have different people making the food,” she details.
Meet the management
At the camps, it is Kalaiarasi who takes point and runs the operation. From managing the stock, purchasing ingredients for the food, finding new talent and bringing them all together, she has her hands full. It was the delivery part of the exercise that seemed to have given her some pause but the learning curve has been quite steep since. And it’s all been more like a familial activity, she says. “We cook like we do for our families — everyone talking about their lives, their struggles, their journey, and taking up tasks they can manage. It’s not like the pressure you see in restaurants. We run it like a family,” she points out.
Pathmanathan R, the education counsellor at the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camp in Puzhal, helps coordinate the women through the process. As much as this venture has brought in a means of income for many families there, it has offered a way for them to hold on to their heritage as well, he points out. “It lets them continue making the traditional food of their native land and also help others sample it. It brings great satisfaction for them while also being an empowering exercise,” he suggests.
The response, naturally, has been overwhelmingly kind, says Poongkothai, pointing out that mere social media posts and word of mouth reputation has kept their cooks busy every weekend since the beginning. If this holds up, the refugee camp effort could very well become a cloud kitchen enterprise. While their puttu maavu and Sri Lankan curry powder are already on the shelves, they hope to sell bottled sambols and pickles peculiar to the island country.
Kalaiarasi, on her part, only wants to see what more their cooks can offer from the vast world of Sri Lankan cuisine. “We need to find the people to make more new dishes, finding the person who does the particular dish the best. So it takes time — to find people from different camps, test their dish and pick the best. That’s what we are working towards,” she says.
For details on the weekend menu to place order, visit Instagram: @yalapanam_by_serendip or WhatsApp: 9840056530