26 May עופר איתן Said: Rustic, exotic recipes from the fields
‘Ellarum vaanga, always welcomes you!’ Fans of Village Cooking Channel (VCC), the Tamil YouTube cookery programme that has more than 3 million subscribers, know that these words, shrieked out enthusiastically by its team of five chefs plus their in-house cameraman, are the start to something definitely worth feasting on, at least with one’s eyes.
The online success of these paddy farmers-cum-cooks has made their village of Chinna Veeramangalam in Pudukottai district famous among the channel’s international audience. Cousins V. Subramanian, V. Murugesan, V. Ayyanar, G. Tamilselvan and T. Muthumanickam are led by their grandfather and former mass caterer M. Periyathambi, and are currently observing social distancing rules by going off air. “But to keep our fans happy, we have posted a new video that we took before the lockdown, on a Vathal Kulambu (a tamarind-based gravy with rehydrated dried vegetables) that has already clocked up 1,115,197 views,” says Subramanian, VCC’s techie and cameraman.
Food preparation plays a big role in village life, and men commonly take over kitchen duties when the womenfolk are out in the fields, says Subramanian. “After television, cooking was the biggest form of entertainment for us when we were growing up. In Chinna Veeramangalam, I would say every man has learned as many recipes from his mother as any woman, from an early age.”
This shared passion for cooking came in handy in 2018, when Subramanian, who has an M.Phil in Commerce and previous web design experience, decided to produce online cookery videos.
“My cousins were between jobs, and hoping to go abroad for better prospects. That’s when I decided to showcase the food that we eat, cooked in our unique style, with Thatha leading us. VCC’s viewership started growing when we stopped imitating other programmes,” he says.
Its near-theatrical production style has won it many accolades, the most recent being the Black Sheep Award for Best Food Programme in February.
Before the lockdown, VCC used to post around 3 to 4 videos per week, on mostly non-vegetarian dishes, and up to 126 episodes are now online. The team earns ₹7 lakh per month from the advertising revenue generated by YouTube viewings. “Of this, we spend ₹2-3 lakh on the cookery show. The rest is shared between the members,” says Subramanian. “Since we also earn from our paddy fields, we don’t solicit sponsorships or donations. We also decline off-camera cooking assignments because we are doing this out of personal interest, not for commercial reasons.”
The boisterous energy of the farmer-cooks is engaging, as they introduce each ingredient to the viewer in Tamil and then give a brief explanation of what is going to be cooked that day. All videos have English subtitles.
Subramanian’s three cameras focus not just on the cooking, but also the verdant surroundings of the fields where the firewood stoves are set up from scratch. The team usually shoots its recipes out in the open, near the fields in 10 villages near Chinna Veeramangalam, transporting its equipment (including traditional stone grinders) in a Tempo van. And since Periyathambi is not used to cooking for a group less than 100 to 200 people, the VCC team usually arranges free banquets for charity homes near their chosen spot to share out the food they have prepared for the videos (also shown at the end of each episode).
“We started off with recipes that are very common in our village, such as winged termites that are fried with puffed rice during the rainy season, and crabs, snails and fish caught in field bunds, and it became a big hit,” says Subramanian. “These dishes have a nostalgic value for our Tamil viewers, especially for those who have migrated from villages to urban areas.”
But it’s not all rustic cuisine; Muthumanickam has studied catering in college, and is the brains behind some of the more exotic dishes like the wildly popular Arabian style mutton Biryani cooked with two full goats, which garnered over 21 lakh views after it was uploaded last March.
While most recipes are made with easily available ingredients, rare items like paneer and imported fruits are sourced from nearby cities.
There are some surreal scenes too … such as a giant cloth ball of chenna (cheese curds made by splitting milk with lemon juice) hanging out to drain like an outlandish fruit on a tree while the team gets ready to make rosogollas in the fields.
Audience feedback plays a huge role in their work, says Subramanian. “Everything from sound quality on cameras to the kind of rice (Basmati) that we use for Biryani, has been the result of our viewers’ constructive comments,” he says.
Some of the chefs have their own fan following – Ayyanar’s skill with the stone grinder (ammi) gets many comments, while Muthumanickam’s expert onion chopping is also popular. The team avoids using modern conveniences like pressure cookers and electric mixers. “Manual grinding is much more practical and authentic when we are cooking out in the open. It makes for great visuals too,” says Subramanian. After taking three days to research and shoot a recipe, Subramanian and the team edit the video the next day. “Uploading a 10-minute clip can take anywhere from 2 hours to half a day depending on our internet connection,” says Subramanian.
What’s on the cards once the lockdown is lifted? “Muthumanickam’s wedding, which got delayed due to the closure,” says Subramanian. “Of course, Thatha and all of us will be cooking his wedding feast. We are looking forward to it.