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.
At age 15 he 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. Mrs. Meenakshi Meyyappan’s was the fourth family he worked for and in her employ, he has remained 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 and then for two to three hundred people at weddings and festival celebrations. Now, The Bangala has grown from the four rooms they had at opening to 25 and Karrupiah still awakens at 5 a.m. to begin his days, as he has 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. After 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 before starting in on coordinating the 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. Guests are served between 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. with Karrupiah calling 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 and Raman who is the pastry chef and leader of the dining room serving team. Onamly, is a local woman and member of the administrative team. She is is proficient at all she does and loves helping with the cooking classes and acting as Karrupiah’s translator.
Karrupiah 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 shared that I was surprised to hear that he had time to produce children, he laughed out loud and confirmed, with a show of fingers, that he found time for four.
He knows his 200 or so recipes so well that he can cook them with his eyes closed and sometimes does. Despite the sophistication of some of the dishes he and The Bangala are known for, when he’s at his own home, he told me that he enjoys the simplest of foods. He’ll cook himself a Sambhar (a vegetable and lentil soup) to start the day and then enjoy whatever vegetables are fresh and in season – with a bit of rice – for his other meals. He sweeps and cleans his home in the morning and 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 the recipes that, previous to Sumeet’s work to capture them in a cookbook called The Bangala Table, were only available in the memory of this humble cook. We are very grateful that Karrupiah, Sumeet and his co-author Mrs. Meenakshi Meyyappan were willing to share a few of their favourites with us.
When The Bangala Table made its debut, Karrupiah, at 70, got on an airplane for the first time and 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 at that last thought. His palate has a predilection for coconut milk and cream not cow’s cream and butter and for 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.
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 ingredients he sources daily and techniques to extract the maximal flavour from each. Sometimes, he really does close his eyes and cook by touch, actually feeling how tender 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 and I have a new reason and longing to return.