Food historian Rakesh Raghunathan’s new documentary series tracks the people and emotions behind popular local joints
In the bylanes of Mandaveli, a man dressed in a low-slung pair of shorts has been tending wood-fired stoves in a soot-blackened kitchen for over 40 years now. And the hot meals he plates up have turned scores of customers into decades-long loyalists. Meet ‘trouser thatha’ Rajendran, of Trouser Kadai — the name lovingly given to his no-name food joint, thanks to his signature look. He is one of seven cooks starring in FoodArt: Chennai, the first edition of city-based food historian Rakesh Raghunathan’s new documentary series.
The idea for the show, which promises to go “behind the emotion of food”, came about quite serendipitously. “Last year, an old man came to our house to sell kolam maavu. As we got talking about how he makes his mixture [he adds rice flour to rock powder so that ants can eat it], he also shared food stories from his hometown of Dharmapuri. And it occurred to me that till now, through my shows and workshops, I’ve only focussed on food, never the people who cook it,” says Raghunathan, who started the handle @artistswhocreatefood on Instagram soon after. As he kept digging, he unearthed more stories.
Munzera Begum, ande ki mithai, ‘trouser thatha’ Rajendran, Raghunathan in an outdoor kitchen, and cooks at work
“A conversation with Gautham Menon led me to Nainan’s, housed in the 130-year-old YMCA building in Parry’s Corner. It’s the filmmaker’s favourite stop for caramel custard,” he says. The café is a blast from our colonial past, with its high ceilings and marble-topped tables. “The custard recipe hasn’t changed in God knows how many years!” Another discovery: Munzera Begum of MR Bakerz in Triplicane. Her grandfather’s creation, ande ki mithai (made from surplus milk and eggs at his farm), is just divine. “When food touches the soul, it’s not just because of great technique, it’s because of the emotion, the philosophy behind it. That’s what I wanted to capture in this series,” says Raghunathan, who is still deciding if part two will explore more of Chennai, or head South to Madhurai, a city he loves.
The episodes are of varying lengths, ranging from six to 12 minutes. “It depends on how long they could chat with me,” he smiles. But the stories are all engrossing — from how Nainan’s once hosted India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to trouser thatha starting his kitchen to keep up with his sick daughter’s medical expenses. “His daughter passed away, but he stayed on in the city. When I asked him about his life, he told me, “What I’ve earned in my life is happiness’.” It is a sentiment that Raghunathan says will resonate in all the episodes. Oh, and if you drop by Trouser Kadai, he recommends the mutton kola urundai.
FoodArt: Chennai premieres on August 22 (Madras Day) across Raghunathan’s Instagram, Youtube and Facebook accounts.