22 Nov Revathy Shanmugam – Our Southern Culinary Queen
If Chettinad cuisine was a person, its name would be Revathy Shanmugam. It is not just that she has authored 14 cookbooks or recorded more than 500 episodes of cookery shows. It is not because she has taught cooking to more than 3000 students or because more than 5000 people use her cooking app regularly to prepare authentic meals. It is because nobody has done more to promote, demystify and make accessible the intricacies of Chettinad cuisine to lakhs of food lovers on India and across the world.
Revathy Shanmugam is not just a Home Culinaire par excellence – she is the culinary queen of the south.
Born in Chennai to the revered poet and lyricist of South Indian movies Kavignar Kannadasan, Revathy was brought up in a very conservative family. Youngest among her six siblings, Revathy was a pampered child who was not even allowed to step into the kitchen. ‘Not that I was interested’, she says smilingly. Married off at the age of 15, she was still playing with her friends and cousins at her own wedding, without realising how her life was about to change.
Life did change after marriage, initially gradually. In due course, as the joint family evolved to a nuclear one, the cooks at home had little to do and the mantle of cooking suddenly fell on Revathy. And thus began her quest to start collecting and working with recipes. She turned to her mother and aunts, who were all fastidious and meticulous cooks, imbibing from them her obsession with shapes, textures and color.
Revathy was brought up in a household, where non-vegetarian dishes were de rigueur at every meal. Married into a strictly vegetarian household, the transition had many additional twists. And therein lies a tale of vegetarian fish curry – one of Revathy’s signature dish – which looks and tastes like fish, but is pure vegetarian. Revathy has developed a repertoire of such mock meat dishes, which are a nod to both sides of her family.
“It wasn’t an easy start for me at all. In fact, at one stage it was difficult for me to eat my own food”, she says. “Once my sister in law said she would come with her family for dinner. I was in complete panic since I had no idea how to plan the menu and which dish to pair with another. Finally I made coconut rice that took me three attempts to get the right batch. When I made chapattis the whole room was full of smoke. I ended the rather haphazard meal with Kheer”. Receiving fulsome praise from all made her feel elated. ‘My father in law was full of beautiful words of encouragement. It is only when I sat down to have the food myself, I realised how bad it was. That’s the sort of love and encouragement I used to get. I feel that my family gave me the support and love to go beyond my limitations’.
We met Revathy at her 80-year-old house in Chennai where she was preparing Chettinad delicacies for us, which also forms a base of all her cooking. “My journey into serious cooking or as a vocation started in 1999 when AVM production approached me. They had a cookery show and they wanted me to do that. It was my brother-in-law’s company and he was one who always encouraged and pushed me to find my calling in cooking.”
Revathy used to be a reader at a production house and one day they approached her to write a food column. At first she was unwilling and actually dis-believing, but finally began to write for them and that too for six long years. Then in 2006, another production house decided to bring out a cooking supplement, which would compile thirty different recipes for the popular, daily dishes. Revathy put together thirty such recipes, each to cook Sambhar in a different style. ‘I thought let me write it and see what all I know. It was surprising to see that I know so much – 1200 recipes. They published 3 books – each contains 300 recipes. It was a super hit’.
After the book, TV followed with Jaya TV asking her to do a program every Monday, which again became super successful. ‘I think all this also happened because I created recipes to cook with ingredients that are readily available, contrary to the then existing recipe books which only had non-accessible ingredients and methods’.
Much has happened since and with each passing year, Revathy’s quest for delving deeper into the Chettinand cuisine is unabated. I feel that now I have so much to share, so much still to discover and I would be very happy if others take it forward with as much passion. Revathy’s advise to those who learn from her is to straightforward – cook with love and interest. Ingredients are only 80%, rest is your energy and emotion that comes through the food.
Nobody had ever pointed that out in such stark clarity. We chewed thoughtfully as we sat down to eat an absolutely soul satisfying meal of vegetarian fish curry with Appams.