- Location Chinnaveera-mangalam village in the Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu
- Team members Subramanian, Murugesan, Ayyanaar, Tamilselvan, Muthumanikam and the master cook Periyathambi (all farmers first)
- Specialty Traditional village food, cooked in the open fields using natural ingredients like cold- pressed oil, hand-ground paste and wood fire for cooking
- Humane touch They cook enough to be shared by an entire village, a home for the poor
Say Chinnaveeramangalam village and people may simply purse their lips and shake their heads. But mention ‘Village Cooking Channel’ and the response will be more enthusiastic, even lip-smacking, from more than 16 lakh eager and hungry mouths to be precise. What started as a small cooking experiment in this small village near Aranthangi town in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu has taken the internet by storm. A group of six farmers from the village are rustling up tasty village recipes in their kitchen set amid coconut and banana plantations and rice fields under the blue skies, and cooking up a YouTube revolution.
Within two years, the YouTube channel has more than 16 lakh subscribers and at least 15 lakh viewers every day. It clocks monthly earnings of an estimated Rs 4 lakhs, which is sufficient to roll out one episode after another—once in three days and nearing 100 episodes, not counting the days when their shoot gets rained out. “After good rainfall in our district we used a traditional method of diverting water from ponds to catch freshwater fish. We cooked a local fish curry and served it to all the families in our village. I made a video of the process and uploaded it as Village Cooking Channel in March 2018. To our surprise, we had more than 20,000 views on the first day and soon the numbers swelled,” recalls Velusamy Subramanian, the team’s techie who videographs, edits and uploads the cooking adventure. As the channel notched up more viewers, Subramanian sold his blogger template website for a good price to invest in a professional camera for better video quality and fund the project.
The brain behind the project is Periyathambi, a 67-year-old master cook. With decades of experience in cooking for weddings and social events he has all the local recipes on the tip of his fingers and has used the opportunity to share his culinary secrets. He pours each ingredient into a large cooking vat, accompanied by his running commentary, as he shows the viewers how it’s done.
“Each district in Tamil Nadu offers a distinct dish, and there are some culinary delights identified with certain communities, Chettinad being the most famous. Unfortunately, our hotels and restaurants have deprived these dishes of their original taste. We recreate the authentic cuisine using traditional cooking methods and natural ingredients such as cold-pressed oil from wooden presses,” he explains.
Another traditional trick is to grind all paste and powders right there on the fields using a granite roller and platform known as ammi in Tamil. “Most homes have switched over to mixers and grinders, but the real flavours can be captured only when the spices are ground with hands. Also how do you get power connection for mixers in an open field? I volunteered to do this tough job and struggled initially but can now whip up turmeric or ginger-garlic paste or powders in no time,” says Ayyanaar. Also, the traditional stone grinder to make turmeric and red chilli paste makes for eye-catching visuals.
Size does not deter them as they have cooked giant sting rays and converted two full goats into steaming mutton biryani—the latter clocked over one crore views on YouTube. At the other end, they also demonstrated how to catch winged termites during the rainy season and fry them with puffed rice before savouring this typical village delicacy, said to be rich in proteins.
As the show rolled on to its second year, viewers complained: “Why only non-veg dishes?” Periyathambi took up the challenge to come up with sambar with multiple vegetables, temple prasadams of tamarind and jaggery rice and even south Indian samosas. To show that their repertoire can go beyond the Vindhyas, they even rustled up paneer butter masala courtesy Muthumanikam, a graduate in catering science. To reproduce the authentic taste of the north Indian dish they used Kashmiri mirch and traditional Punjabi ingredients. “Since we could not make rotis we had to make do with rice,” chuckles Muthumanikam.
Dishes from other south Indian states, like Hyderabadi biryani and ‘meen polichal’ from Kerala have also been served, making sure that the local flavours are reproduced exactly. The nativity is also maintained in the manner the team goes about getting its ingredients from the fields—digging into farm bunds to pull out crabs and grab snails camouflaged in mud, trapping fish from ponds—all of which is captured in detail on camera to keep up viewer interest. “What is the point in just showing chopping vegetables and cooking from a mud pot with a monotonous tone?” asks Tamilselvan, an MPhil in nano-technology. Their first job is farming and their first love is cooking, he says. Since they are brothers and cousins, everyone can switch roles without any room for ego.
All the cooking happens in the open in about ten villages around Aranthangi. Whatever the dish, the team makes sure it prepares enough to feed each household in the village and also send a portion to a home for poor people in Aranthangi. “Unless such delicious food is tasted and devoured by the dozens, where is the happiness in making the dish?” asks Subramanian. Other than the main dish for the channel they also cook rice and gravy to go with it—all of which takes the entire day if they start by 8 am.
“Their style is very earthy, raw and rustic. They’ve shown the beauty of food the way it is. Large-scale cooking is an art as much as cooking at home and they have captured that very well,” says TV show host and food historian Rakesh Raghunathan. Having grabbed so many eyeballs, the team also gets one regular request from viewers: “We are coming that way, can we taste your food first hand?”
And so many such tempted souls have descended during the culinary outing to have a go at Periyathambi’s dishes. The team has resisted demands to cook for weddings and special festivals, refusing to deviate from their present format. “We have no sponsors and we do not want to compromise on the taste and authenticity by becoming commercial. The advertisement revenue from the channel is more than sufficient to keep the show going, at least for now. And, of course, we have our farmlands to feed us,” explains Subramanian.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai