Olivia Hanson wanders along the lanes of Sivakasi to sample some of the delicious road side fare. At the end of her culinary adventure, she discovers that in India food is part of the fabric of everyday life.
There are definitely perks to being a reporter for the Sivakasi Times and one of them would have to be our recent research on several nearby small eateries. Honestly, we just couldn't have done the job properly without tasting at least some of the food available!
Our real aim behind this research however was to find out more about the economic status of their owners and to see if there was any common ground between them. The sheer number of eateries in the area seemed to indicate that the stalls must at least be generating a living wage, otherwise who would bother running them? We were intrigued to find out more.
Our first stop was a relatively large palm-leaf stall, selling buttermilk, papaya, pineapple and "kamangul" - a thick broth made of special rice grain and onions, served with chili pickle and beans. It is apparently full of protein and good for muscle-building, so it was very popular with male customers! The owner set up the business 5 years ago with an investment of Rs10,000, but now he makes an average profit of Rs200 a day from a usual number of 50 customers. This is enough to support his family, which includes two daughters and one son, all of whom are studying full-time at school.
Next we visited a tiny corrugated-iron building that we had never noticed before, by the road from Satchiapuram into Sivakasi. Here a husband-and-wife team runs a pure vegetarian café, serving idli and dosai in the morning and Meals on banana leaves for lunch. Incredibly they started the business 20 years ago and average 50-60 customers per day, which generates a profit of Rs200-300. They cook and serve all the food themselves, with only a little help from their two younger sons before they leave for school in the morning. The food certainly looked delicious, perhaps helped by the owners' previous experience of working in a hotel, and at such good prices too!
We met several other old-timers in the eatery business, including Muthu Raj, who has been running a fruit smoothie (made from bananas, pineapple, papaya, grapes and syrup) stall for ten years, having followed his traditional family business. He works everyday unless it's raining as this would destroy his palm-leaf stall and make it unviable economically - he needs 300 customers a day, who often arrive between 10am and 2pm, to make Rs200-300. This figure seems to be the norm for roadside stalls like these. Muthu Raj has a son and a daughter, also at school; however he does not want them to follow him in the family business but would like them to continue their education at university. This shows real progress among Indians from all walks of life.
Another old-hand is Murugush, who has been running a tiny stall selling chili bhajis (green chilies dipped in dhal-rice batter and then fried) for 20 years. He is in a prime location, right next to the temple, so although he averages 200 customers most days, he can expect up to 5000 on a Friday after the Hindu service. This significantly increases his usual profit of Rs100 and helps him to provide for his sons. We will definitely be supporting his business in the future as we decided during our tasting session that chili bhajis are our new favourite snack!
However, judging from the large profits of the last stall that we visited, it seems that many Sivakasians would disagree with us, preferring the perennially tasty Chicken 65. For those not in the know, this dish consists of small pieces of chicken fried in ginger, cornflower, chili powder, turmeric, cumin and salt, and often served with onions. The stall also did a side-show of chunks of chicken liver. The owner only started up 2 years ago, when he had to leave the fireworks factory having realised that he was allergic to the chemicals. Now he averages between 200-300 customers a day, who usually come after 7pm for a post-work pick-me-up, and makes a daily profit of at least Rs300.
One thing we have realised during our stay in India is that wherever you are, you're never far from food. On a recent train journey, we were amazed by the variety of hot meals being sold by the vendors - parotha with sambar, idli and vadah, curry and chapatti. in England you'd be lucky to get a greasy sandwich and a packet of crisps! However, this large amount of quality food is only available because there are enterprising people ready to take a risk by leaving organised employment and starting up a business on their own. They form an important part of India's capitalist system, especially in these tough times of recession - so next time you walk by a food-stall, buy something! It's good for your tummy and for the economy!
Krishnammal Jagannathan freedom fighter cum social activist and founder of LAFTI in Nagapattinam, by Amy (Australia); Chasing the north east Monsoon, our MM team Member chased monsoon from Chennai, meet the Metrological Survey of India by Caroline (Denmark); Chasing the Danish tradition at Taharangambadi by Caroline (Denmark); "Life of a fisher man" in Nagapattinam, Pondycherry, Kanyakumari & Chennai. village voice at fisher man village at Nagapattinam Hanae Arki (Japan);