If Chinmaya Arjun Raja is not holding a spatula in his hand, then he’s busy looking at a piling list of orders for his home-made sun-dried pickles. “Last summer, we made over 1,000 kilos of pickles, and through word of mouth everything has been retailed. This year we are gearing up to double the quantity,” says the founder of Tasting Pleasures, a wine and gastronomic club.
He plans to initiate the Chennai chapter for the Slow Food movement, an eco-gastronomic organisation started by the now legendary Carlo Petrini in Rome in the 1980s. Promoting bio-diversity and upholding tradition is one of the key agendas of the movement, and Chinmaya is completely supportive of it. “We hope to launch the Chennai chapter soon!”
Hailing from Rajapalayam in Tamil Nadu, he reminisces that every summer the women in his household would make pickles in the courtyard and this would last the whole year. “Like my family, every family in Rajapalayam had their own speciality. In fact, Rajapalayam is a classic example of cultures converging. Over the course of history, people from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu settled in Rajapalayam have been bringing their cuisine to the region,” he explains.
Through his brand ‘Panakam’, he hopes to identify, document and encourage families to continue making preservative-free, sun-dried pickles using their family recipes. While he began with the Rajapalayam Mango Pickle, a secret recipe followed by the Telugu-speaking Rajapalayam Raju community, he has added the Anakapalle Endaavakaya made by the Dravida Brahmin community of Anakaplle, the Bellam Pacchi Avakaya of Anakapalle, Rajapalayam Dhabbakaya Citron Pickle, Rajapalayam Gooseberry Pickle to his list. “This summer we will be introducing gooseberry thokku, ginger-corriander chutney and we’re working on a Rajapalayam cuisine recipe book. But, I’m equally excited about another simple yet delightful kitchen must have—a concoction of honey and ginger which has immense remedial properties and aids digestion,” says he. With tags tied around each bottle, indicating the family, community and uniqueness of the pickle, Chinmaya believes that pickling is more than a food process, it’s a reflection of the community and rich heritage that we are a part of.
As a young adult, Chinmaya got the opportunity to travel and live with a family in France, and soon discovered his appreciation for wine. The regional and authentic experience in food, wine and cheese that he witnessed during his travel across Europe made him think about India’s regional specialities. “Once you become a serious wine enthusiast, you tend to look at food in the same way. We search for authenticity,” and that search helped him create the brand ‘Panakam’.
As a child, Chinmaya played an active role during the annual pickling season every summer at home. The atmosphere at home has helped him develop his love for food, cooking and curiosity for flavours. “When I founded the Chennai Wine Club, it was a time when the term ‘wine’ had a negative connotation. But I went ahead, and in 2008 we organised the first wine appreciation event for the Chennai public.”
In 2012, Chinmaya officially launched Tasting Pleasures—a membership-based club that organises four curated food and wine events in a year, which also feature movies revolving around wine. He has been organising Terra Madre day for the past four years in Chennai through Tasting Pleasures. “One year, we invited a French film maker who had documented the bio-wine making process and in another we had a pot luck on indigenous cuisine,” he says.
After 2010, he began to get back into the kitchen and helped his mother with the pickling ritual. “I learnt the entire process and I can proudly say that I know my family recipe that’s been passed down through generations,” he says. Chinmaya says that pickling only happens when summer is at its peak. “We are a small team—my mother, my wife and I. We select the mangoes, slice them up, sun-dry them and finally stir them into pickles. It’s a process that requires passion and patience.” Using his courtyard and terrace in his ancestral home in Rajapalayam, and the kitchen of his home in Adyar, he adds that it’s quite a meditative process and the aromas of the mangoes, citrons, gooseberries and freshly pounded spices fill the space and your soul.
Juggling varied roles has been both challenging and rewarding, admits Chinmaya. But he still toils it out under the hot sun, selecting the finest mangoes, slicing them up and neatly arranging them to dry, turning them on all sides at regular intervals. “It’s tedious work, especially the Anakapalle Endaavakaya mango pickle. Sometime back, a young lad from Rajapalayam, now living in Bengaluru, connected with me and shared his memory of his great grandmother’s pickle. Instances and stories like this keep me going,” says Chinmaya.