We can smell the murukku being fried in coconut oil even as we enter Soodamanipuram third street in Karaikudi. Ask anyone in the city for authentic Chettinad snacks and they will instantly guide you to Soundaram Snacks. For the past three decades, A L Soundaram aachi (grandma) has won hearts for her tasty and healthy range of murukkus and athirasams not just in Chettinad but across the globe. From Deepavali to weddings, she has been supplying snacks to various festive occasions.
Busy packing a carton of kaimurkku to be couriered to a customer in the US, sixty-year-old Soundaram aachi welcomes us with a radiant smile. Over 20 women sit cross-legged on the floor, some kneading rice flour, some rolling out little cheedais while others frying athirasams on the stove. Sekar and his wife sit in a corner making kaimurukkus. “They have been with me for the past 30 years and all of them have become experts now. It’s not just skills that are important in making snacks but also a happy frame of mind so that the murukku comes out smooth without breaking,” says the aachi. Apart from the perfect proportions of ingredients that she’s thorough with, Soundaram makes sure that there’s no compromise in quality.
Everyday, the home unit makes snacks out of 300 kilograms of rice flour and uses 30 litres of refined oil and 15 litres of coconut oil. “There are certain things I follow as a principle and that’s the reason for my success,” says Soundaram. “Right from the rice we use to the way we make the snacks, I am a strict task master. I procure only the IR20 variety of rice from Puduvayal, near Karaikudi. I never reuse the oil and most importantly, we hand-pound rice in the olakkai to make the flour.”
The tirukkai and olakkai are not idle show pieces at Soundaram’s. After washing and soaking the rice in water, it’s sun-dried before being either broken in a tirukkai or pounded in an olakkai. “Making snacks is an art in Chettinad,” she says. “There are so many varieties of murukkus and some are in the shape of flowers such as magizhampoo or pirandai. Even the popular achu murukku is a beautiful piece of art.”
The concept of idai-palakaram or evening snacks was always popular among the Chettiyars, who were big foodies, says Soundaram’s husband Alagappan, who supports her in the business. “The Chettiyars, being a mercantile community, packed food for days when they travelled abroad for business. A voyage by sea to Malayasia or Singapore would take a week in those days and snacks came in handy as they stayed fresh for a long time.”
“Chettinad snacks are made of only rice flour and not besan or maida. And that’s why they are healthy with a longer shelf life,” adds the aachi. She makes a wide variety of snacks including thenkuzhal, manakolam, maaladdu, thattai, seepu cheedai and kalakala apart from a slew of podis to be eaten with rice or tiffin. Vengai arisi maavu is a podi typical to Chettinad households, made of roasted and finely pounded rice flour mixed with powdered sugar. “It’s a healthy and filling quick meal that can be eaten by anyone from a six-month-old baby to a 100-year-old person. All you have to do is mix it with water and consume it like a paste or drink it like a kanji.”
Soundaram learnt preparing snacks from her mother-in-law, Thillai aachi. “I just watched her at work and imbibed it all. I still have the same measuring padis that she used. Even the salt is measured to the perfect ratio, never more or less by even a wee bit,” beams Soundaram. “The mixing of ingredients is crucial to achieve consistency in taste and texture. And it differs from snack to snack. For instance, the urad dal has to be deep roasted for thenkuzhal while for cheedai, it’s given a round of light roasting,” she explains. “Earlier, we roasted dal and rice in clay pots over firewood stoves,” she adds, “so that the heat is evenly distributed and every single grain is roasted uniformly. Such was the precision followed for making snacks.”
Apart from orders from regular customers spread across countries, Soundaram’s unit is also visited by catering students. “Last month, we had a batch of Japanese students learning catering. The previous year, we also had a batch from Canada visiting us.” Videos on Soundaram achi’s special snacks can also be seen on YouTube.
For details, call 92442 50733