If you enter the village of Kalayur in Tamil Nadu, your nose may begin to twitch. The distinct smell of masalas rides the wind. Great big vessels can be seen glistening outside homes. The delicious smells of cooking become stronger, welcoming you to India’s one and only Village of Cooks.
Most of the men in Kalayur are cooks. It has been so for nearly 500 years. There is no cooking school here or fancy equipment or recipe books. Just centuries of knowledge passed down through the ages. However, how did it all begin? The story goes that the wealthy Reddiar family was fed up with the ‘upper caste’ Brahmin cooks and their exorbitant charges. Living close to them were the ‘lower caste’ Vanniyars who were also fed up of making very little money ploughing their rice fields and wanted better-paying jobs. Word spread that they good some pretty cool cooking skills and once the Reddiars tried their food, the deal was done!
Though the cooks don’t have to pass an exam, young boys apprentice for ten years before they get a chance to do some actual cooking. Before that, it is cut-chop, cut-chop, cut-chop vegetables all day long! If your math period in school seems long, imagine that! The head chefs do the real mixing of ingredients, adjusting of masalas, and getting each dish, all strictly vegetarian, to taste heavenly.
The chefs of Kalayur specialise in wedding banquets, which usually means cooking several large meals over the two-three days of a typical South Indian wedding. As soon as one meal is done, it’s time to prepare for the next. The boys on the breakfast shift have to work all through the night so that no one goes hungry early in the morning. Here, too many cooks never spoil the broth, and a small army of them are needed to manage these monster buffets. However, they have become super speedy and can whip up a meal for 10,000 people in about 3 hours! They have become really popular too and travel all over the country cooking up feasts. They have to be booked at least six months in advance if you want to eat some of their delicious food.
So do these champion chefs get a break? Yes, they do. Though they might be masters of banquets, at home their wives rule the kitchen, and they have absolutely no say!
Written by: Pereena Lamba. Pereena is a freelance writer, editor and creative consultant . She is also co-author of Totally Mumbai.