Family tradition, regional heritage, organic farming and a penchant to preserve the local tasty cuisine are some of the driving forces which resulted in two unique brands of pickles and allied products. The difference between these limited range of home-made products and mass-produced ones is that the family members are personally involved in the various stages of making the food items.
Tradition in a bottle
For Chinmaya Arjun Raja, Founder and Chief Pickle Maker, Panakam, the business of making pickles is simply offering a ‘tradition in a bottle’. According to Chinmaya, “We launched Panakam in 2015 to share the traditional culinary heritage treasured by my family for generations. Various traditional food products are made at home under the Panakam umbrella using indigenous methods of pickling and preserving treasured by various traditional communities in South India.”
Hailing from a town called Rajapalayam, located in the south of Madurai in Tamil Nadu Chinmaya belongs to the Telugu-speaking Kshatriya Raju community. Rajapalayam is famous for its mangoes, cotton-based factories, and the famous Indian dog breed – the Rajapalayam Hound. His ancestors, who were from the Vijayanagara kingdom (present day Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka), migrated and settled in Rajapalayam during the reign of King Krishnadevaraya in the 15th century and the Nayakas of Madurai in the 16th century.
“My mother, Prabavathi Arjun, is an excellent cook. Frequent guests at home keep her busy in the kitchen.
My father, Late Sri VKN Arjun Raja, also elevated our culinary education by making us experience different cuisines at restaurants during our travels. He also encouraged my mother to try out new recipes with exotic ingredients. She too happily experimented with new ingredients in her Rajapalayam style,” informs Chinmaya.
The highlight of this culinary odyssey was the Rajapalayam mango pickle. Chinmaya’sfamily has been using a treasured heirloom mango pickle recipe for many generations. The recipe most probably came with his ancestors in their travels down south. The mangoes were from their own family orchards in Rajapalayam. He has fond memories of witnessing and participating in the annual pickling rituals during the summer months at home in Rajapalayam.
Indeed, India has a rich tradition of pickle making. The countless regional varieties and flavours of the Indian mango pickle are an example. “I feel we haven’t done much to showcase the diversity of Indian pickles. These traditional pickles need to be experienced and documented. Apart from the popular industrial pickle brands in supermarket and corner grocery stores, it is a challenge to find real homemade traditional pickles bottled without preservatives. It was to resolve this challenge that I conceived the idea of marketing all traditional handmade pickles by selected families who continue to follow recipes passed down through generations using fresh local produce and ingredients. I also look for families who share our enthusiasm and expertise to document and share their traditional recipes,” says Chinmaya.
Their first product was their very own Rajapalayam mango pickle. The recipe would have certainly undergone several adaptations due to new influences and ingredients. All the Rajapalayam based products under the Panakam umbrella are made at home and by hand by Chinmaya Arjun Raja and his mother, Smt. Prabavathi Arjun.
Chinmaya’s wife, Dr Madhuri Saripalleand and her family are from the SaripalleandVedula families of Anakapalle and are from north-eastern coastal Andhra Pradesh. Madhuri did her doctorate in economics from University of Connecticut in the United States and teaches at a business school in Andhra Pradesh. Inspired by the pickle-making abilities of her maternal grandmother, Smt. Jnanaprasoonamba, Madhuri always had a dream of bottling her family pickles. Madhuri and her mother, Smt. Manjula Saripalle, dedicate the Anakapalle range of pickles, under the Panakam label, to her memory.
It has only been a few years since Chinmaya stumbled upon this opportunity. By profession, he is an exporter and a wine collector. “My wine-related travels and exposure to several vineyards around the world and interactions with wine makers and vineyard owners, taught me one thing. Wines differ in taste from region to region and from vineyard to vineyard. Coupled with the making process, the location of the wine distillery and climatic conditions, the final product will differ from season to season. In our own backyard, say in Rajapalayam where extensive plantations of mango groves are prevalent, the two-month a year produce will vary from year to year depending on climatic conditions. There again, the same variety of mango will be different in taste from farm to farm. Each community or family will also have their own process of making pickles, their own combination of ingredients and method of making pickles. At Panakam, we are attempting a standardisation of certain popular varieties of pickles and making them in the most organic and time-consuming way,” says Chinmaya.
Starting with a conservative capital of ten lakh rupees, which mostly went into procurement of quality ingredients, packaging, and to arrange the required manpower, Chinamaya and his family members plunged headlong into the making of Panakam pickles. Spreading the brand through social media, select participation in farmers’ markets and through word of mouth, the sales slowly started picking up. “Additionally, many family members from the communities in our hometowns are settled abroad and when they came to know about Panakam, they have been ordering bulk quantities for their own consumption,” says Chinmaya.
Parul must have been a small kid relaxing in her mother’s lap in her hometown, while her grandmother was busy in the kitchen cooking up delicacies for the family members as well as for a constant string of visitors and guests. Subconsciously, the cooking bug must have got implanted in her growing brain, even as she was being rocked to sleep by her mother. Many years later, after she married and settled down in faraway Madras (now Chennai), ParulSatyan Bhat not only balanced a family of two girls but her and her husband’s business in public relations as well. “It didn’t give me enough time to indulge in extensive cooking and even now, after my daughters are married and settled abroad, cooking is just a daily necessity. But a passion that has evolved for the last ten years is in the realm of making pickles, chutneys and powders,” says Parul. “Pickle making requires skills and certain rules have to be followed. I learnt those tips from my mother and grandmother. My dadi (paternal grandmother) was an expert cook and I learnt my lessons watching her and my mother cook. I started making pickles many years back and used to distribute it to the friends. Parul’s Magic Pickles are handmade and no preservatives or colour is used.”
What started as a small home-grown business of making exclusive Gujarati pickles and chutneys is slowly turning into a business model. “After I got the FSSAI licence, since 2016, I have been paying a little more attention to the packaging, promotion and slowly increasing the output. Since I am very particular about the raw materials, ingredients and the process itself of making and bottling the produce, I will not scale up drastically. An organic and steady growth is what I am planning,” says Parul.
Word of mouth and WhatsApp have been her mode of spreading the message of her uniquely handmade and bottled products. She has even resisted getting onto Facebook as she was worried that she may not be able to meet the demand. “Moreover, some of the raw materials like mango, lime and even a particular type of chilly are all seasonal and grows only during one or two months in a year. I do not want to buy large quantities and cold-store them as it will lose its naturalness,” says Parul. As against the norm of most pickle makers using gingelly oil, Parul uses mustard oil. “This gives longevity and the pickle will even last for 2 years. Sometimes, gingelly oil turns rancid,” notes Parul.
Right now, Parul has about 15 varieties in her portfolio and she sells on an average of 200 bottles a month. “Quite a few of the products have come about from specific orders. When I know that there would be a demand for a particular item, I will include that in my portfolio,” says Parul.
Home entrepreneurs like Chinmayaraja and Parul are making a mark in the SME segment of doing business in niche markets catering to neighbourhoods and regionalised markets, with their expertise, knowledge and a sheer determination to make a success of their talent.