Karrupiah is the master chef at The Bangala in the town of Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu’s Chettinad region. From the time I first met him in 2014, until my return with Pauli-Ann two years later, I dreamed of cooking with him.
Karrupiah is the expression of what is good in all cooks. He lives to cook for the pleasure of others. His days are long but filled with a rhythm that keeps the melody of his life in tune. And, what a life its been.
At age 15, Karrupiah started working as a cook’s helper. He slowly learned the classic and inventive dishes of the Chettiyar people from the ladies of each family he worked for.
He has a few hundred dishes in his repertoire and has memorized them all. Mrs. Meenakshi Meyyappan’s was the fourth family he worked for. He has worked for her now for over 50 years.
Before Mrs. Meyyappan opened The Bangala in 2000, Karrupiah would cook for at least 10 family members and 15 staff daily. For weddings and festival celebrations he would easily cook for two to three hundred people. Now, The Bangala has grown from the four rooms they had at opening to 25 with more planned.
A Day in the Life
Karrupiah wakes up at 5 a.m. to begin his days. He’s done this everyday of work for the last five decades. His daily routine is completely oriented to serving others.
After waking, Karrupiah has his tea, bathes and sets to work cooking breakfast for his staff. Once they are fed, he begins work on the guest’s breakfast while his team make the morning tea and coffee and set up the dining room.
At 10 a.m., he has his own breakfast and a little break. Then, he coordinates production of the main meal of the day – the incredible banana leaf thali (multi-course lunch) that The Bangala is so famous for.
Lunch is served from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. He rests until 4:30 p.m. and then, again, he returns to the kitchen for dinner prep. The team serves the guests between 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Karrupiah calls it quits around 10 p.m. – a mere 17 hours after his day began.
As The Bangala has expanded, they’ve brought on help to assist their master chef. There are now four sous chefs. Raman who is the pastry chef is also leader of the dining room serving team.
Onamly, is a local woman and member of the administrative team. She is proficient at all she does and loves helping with the cooking classes and acting as Karrupiah’s translator. There’s a little breathing room now.
Karrupiah now takes three days off each month. He goes to his village, a short distance away, to stay in his small home. His wife passed away a few years ago but he enjoys visiting with his children.
When I tell him I am surprised to hear he had time to produce children, he laughs out loud. He confirmed, with a show of fingers, that he had indeed found time to produce four children.
Karrupiah knows his 200 plus recipes so well that he can cook them with his eyes closed and sometimes he does just that. Despite the sophistication of some of the dishes he and The Bangala are known for, when he’s at his own home, he enjoys the simplest of foods.
He’ll cook himself a Sambhar (a vegetable and lentil soup) to start the day. Then, he enjoys whatever vegetables are fresh and in season – with a bit of rice – for his other meals. In the morning, he sweeps and cleans his home. The rest of the day, he enjoys music and time in his hammock between visiting with family and friends.
Our friend Sumeet Nair spent three years cooking with Karrupiah to learn his recipes. Previous to Sumeet’s work to capture them in a cookbook called The Bangala Table, they were only available in the memory of this humble cook.
We are very grateful Karrupiah, Sumeet and his co-author Mrs. Meenakshi Meyyappan were willing to share a few of their favourites with us in upcoming posts.
The Bangala Table
When The Bangala Table made its debut, Karrupiah, at age 70, got on an airplane for the first time. He flew to New Delhi to cook for guests at a flashy launch party.
I asked him if he tried any of the famous North Indian dishes while he was there? “Absolutely not, I ate only the dishes that I prepared for the guests – good South Indian food,” his eyes lit up and crinkled deeply at the corners as chuckles came from his belly with that last thought.
His palate has a predilection for coconut milk and cream not cow’s cream and butter. He prefers fenugreek and mild goondu milagai chilies, not cumin and the fiery heat of northern chilies.
There’s a saying in this region of South India, “One is fortunate to eat like a Chettiyar.” Many of the chefs I know are always in search of novel tastes. Karrupiah is not one of them. He has no need. There’s no separation between the man and the food he creates and enjoys. They are intertwined manifestations of the taste of this place.
Cooking with the Master
And so, after our chat, we cook for an afternoon one-on-one. Language isn’t really necessary.
I’m watching his every move and taking notes from my observations. He uses the ingredients he sources daily and has techniques to extract the maximal flavour from each.
Sometimes, he really does close his eyes and cook by touch. He actually feels how tender the meat is between his fingers, for example.
The rationale for each step in a dish is always there and the mouth-watering results he creates, and has re-created for decades, prove that he is a cook’s cook through and through.
The Bangala now offers a week-long master cooking class with Karrupiah and his staff. We have a new reason and longing to return.
Thank you to the KTM Society and Travel XS for sponsoring our travel throughout South India and Mrs. Meenakshi Meyyappan and her team at The Bangala for their gracious hospitality during our Faces, Places and Plates stay in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu in 2016.
All words and photos are our own and were not shared with the sponsors before publication.