THE VILLAGE OF COOKS
1995 - documentary - 12 min.
directed by Klaus Reisinger & Frédérique Lengaigne
Super 16 mm
A tiny village of South India, Kalayur is known as “The Village of Cooks”. Most of the men of the village are famous cooks. Their specialty: Banquets for 2.000 to 10.000 guests. They are so popular all over the country that their services must be booked several months in advance.
A hamlet of barely 80 thatched houses, Kalayur lies 30 km South of Pondichery, surrounded by the fertile rice fields of Tamil Nadu. Before the first cottages can be seen, huge bright-colored clay statues tell the visitor which Hindu gods are protecting them. The gods have favored Kalayur. Most of the men are renown cooks to such an extend that their services must be booked months in advance.
The Chefs from Kalayur can cook for 10.000 people in less than three hours.
72-year-old Ramasami Krishnasami Balaraman is the oldest chief cook of the village. Six months a year, he travels up and down South India with his assistants to prepare wedding banquets for up to 10.000 people. “Not only can we cook for 10.000 people in less than three hours, but we never get tired of the work," says K. Balraman.
Everything started at the beginning of the 20th century. The lower Vanyiars were working then for the wealthy Reddiar families as laborers and occasional cooks. As their fame grew beyond the borders of the province, the Reddiars sent them out to prepare banquets in other houses. At the time of K. Balaraman’s father, some Vanyiars started to free themselves from their employers and decided to make up their own teams of cooks.
“In those days, rice farming was becoming less profitable and, as we knew the art of cooking, some of us thought to use it to supplement our income,” K. Balaraman explains.
The Reddiar family’s house is, with the school, the only stone building in the village. A widow, Rajasundara Anusuya Reddiar has been managing her house and her lands with an iron hand. The white-haired old chef does not feel much at ease around the open kitchen of the 150-year-old mansion where he and his ancestors used to work in the past. The conversation with his former “boss” reflects the difficulties met by his cast of poor farmers to set up their own business.
“In the past, we, the Reddiars, sent them out to cook in other towns,” says Mrs. Anasuya.
“Her father-in-law used to send me out all the time.” K. Balaraman adds.
“Today, they have their own teams and go by themselves. When all the men are out cooking, we must find others in the nearby village to work on our lands. We can not stop them since it is the way they chose to make a living,” she says bitterly.
There were many pitfalls on the way.
Cooking in India is not an easy business. Not anybody can simply eat anything and the cook’s cast is as important as the type of food, which is ruled by the Hindu religion. Traditionally, wealthy families favor Brahman cooks but they cannot cook for everybody and they are extremely expensive.
K. Balaraman recalls “Years ago, in the Reddiar house, a hundred Brahmans ought to prepare a banquet for a wedding. After a last minute disagreement, the Brahmans left. Reddiar sent for me. With the help of 20 assistants, I managed to prepare the food for 4.000 people on time. Reddiar was delighted.”
A Hindu wedding lasts two days and includes 3 full meals.
The chefs of Kalayur overcame the obstacle of cast by preparing traditional vegetarian Brahman food, suitable for everybody, regardless of the religion or the cast and even for a very reasonable price. The rest is a matter of organization, experience and authority. A Hindu wedding lasts 2 days and includes 3 full meals.
Months ago, a man from Cuddalore came to Kalayur to book K. Balaraman’s services for a wedding. They immediately agreed on a menu and the cook provided his new client with a list of supplies to be delivered to the wedding hall. 2.000 people are expected. On the morning of the appointed day, K. Balaraman and his 20 assistants, including his son Ilango, take the bus to Cuddalore. They only carry along their own ladles and skimmers. The necessary kitchenware will be provided by the wedding hall.
A fruit salad for 2.000 people
The apprentices begin by slicing and cutting the vegetables, an endless task which will last all night long. The chief cook meanwhile finalizes the menu with the brother of the groom. A fruit salad is added despite the extra workload. Four wood fires are lit between bricks inside the chimney while some local women bring out giant cooking pots. The kitchen fills up with noise and smoke. A huge steam cooker for the rice, two electric mixers for the dough, together with the blackened walls, gives the room the atmosphere of a coalmine. Stripped to their waist and sweating, the men get ready to cook, finally. K. Balaraman sits in front of the fireplace to fry the multicolored spices on display in metal plates at his feet.
“My father is an expert in mixing the spices. If a cook is better, then he surely must have learned from my father,” his son Ilango says.
Each man knows his designated task. The chef will later taste, add condiments now and then or check the dough. “Among the 20 men I brought here, there are at least five senior cooks. One takes care of the doughnuts, another one watches over the rice. The third one prepares sambhar, a hot lentil soup, an essential dish in South India. A man is responsible for the coffee and another one looks after the cutting of the vegetables,” K. Balaraman says.
The dinner is ready on time for the arrival of the wedding procession and the families. Five hundred guests will not cause any problem to the cooks. On the other hand, the breakfast is the most important meal of the festivities. This morning 2.000 guests are expected. The cooks have been busy all night long. The fruit salad requested additional work to peal all the fruits, even grapes and remove the seeds. At 7 o’clock sharp, the religious ceremony starts on the ground floor. The breakfast is far more attractive to the first guests, who rush up the stairs to the dinning room. Men eat first. People have to queue up in the staircase because the room can only hold 200 guests at a time. Eight courses have been already served on banana leaves. The guests sit side by side on pink school tables. Food is a serious thing in India and weddings are apparently not a fun party. Women will eat next and the young newly wed couple will have to wait until the very end of the reception to taste the food.
Serious but happy, all the guests will praise the cooks of Kalayur. K. Balaraman is also satisfied: “Everything went on fine, except for the Idiappans (noodles). The quality of the flour was not very good. We worked fine and have been paid accordingly. I returned home happily.”
A wedding like this one brings 3.000 rupees to the team, about 100 $, of which the chef cook takes 20 percent. With 50 banquets a year, it is not surprising that the young men of the village dream of becoming cooks themselves. An average of 15 years as an apprentice is required before being allowed to prepare a single dish.
On all occasions, the women cook at home
Back to his village, the old cook takes some rest before going out to Madras for another banquet. Astrology rules the weddings. This month is very favorable and all the teams of Kalayur are booked for the weeks to come.
Meanwhile, they must still work on their lands. “Women do the housework and take care of the cattle. They also work in rice fields when we are traveling. In any circumstances, the women cook at home. If we were cooking, the women would become lazy," K. Balaraman concludes in a laugh.
Klaus Reisinger and Frédérique Lengaigne
Klaus Reisinger & Frédérique Lengaigne
Frédérique Lengaigne & Klaus Reisinger
Six Pack Film
Bratislava Television Studios
Listo Film and Video
Six Pack Film
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