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The magic of Arusuvai Arasu

Wedding feasts are different if they have that magic Arusuvai Natarajan touch. Whether the traditional South Indian, the mixed fare, or simply mouth-melting sweets, Natarajan's culinary skills are unique. PREMA MANMADHAN meets the King of Six Tastes.

KING OF Six Tastes_ Arusuvai Arasu. N. Natarajan revels in explaining how this title got to him. It was V.V Giri, ex-President of India, who gave it to him, way back in 1960, when he and his group cooked the feast at his daughter's wedding. Baring his hardened palms, he says, " See, I still do cooking. More than the expected number of people came for this wedding, and I had to cook quickly. No one goes without a good lunch when I am in charge of food," the 75-year-old veteran whose business it has been to provide the best food possible for weddings and other functions, says.

"When the guests heard that it was Arusuvai Natarajan who was coming, they all came for our daughter's marriage," said a happy Latha Parameswaran. Parameswaran, of Kottaram Agencies, Kochi, said he never thought he could get him to come here. Natarajan had earlier come for a dekko of the facilities available at the kalyanamandapam, before he actually came, with his 100-member group for the real thing. Most of the vegetables and other stuff are brought from Chennai. Even the water comes from his own mineral water plant. Baby corn, Brussels sprouts, all form part of the menu. He works miracles with vegetables and sweet ingredients.

He needs to be `booked' three months ahead. Well, not if someone's tying the knot before 2004 though, for he's booked till then! But he can always adjust the dates, if the function is big enough and if he thinks his expertise will really and truly be appreciated.

More than half a century of catering to marriage feasts has taught him many things. Laddoos? "There are four kinds of ladoos that I make." And then the Arusuvai Arasu makes a colourful comparison. "You see, one kind of ladoo is like a lady with a traditional sari and one or two necklaces. Not too many ingredients, very traditional. But then, I can also make a laddoo, like a lady who wears a lot of make-up, and has many bangles and many chains around her neck, very rich and ostentatious, with many ingredients,'' he points out, laughing and asking you to forgive him for making this sexist comparison.

Pandit Nehru once called him `the enemy of the State' in zest. Why? In 1960, when the Green Revolution had not yet rolled off, he served Panditji during a marriage feast with so many side dishes that Nehru could not eat it all up. Many guests were also forced to waste a bit of the food, as there were so many items. This wastage provoked Panditji to say this. "But 10 per cent waste is a MUST for any marriage for the couple to be happy-ever-after,'' Arusuvai firmly believes. Many are the VVIPs he has served.

V K Krishna Menon savoured his lunch and Arusuvai did the cooking for ex-President Venkatraman's daughters' weddings too.

This man from Kumbakonam, whose family has been in the `samayal' business for four generations, also writes a column on food in `Ananthavikatan'. He can put together a traditional South Indian feast or please a `mixed' palate too. For the non-vegetarian influenced, he has brinjal chops, `which tastes like mutton chops', cauliflower kuruma which `tastes like chicken curry', and Brussels sprouts chops. He is at home with the exotic vegetables too. Baby corn can be cooked in four different ways, he elaborates. What about the masalas? "We make them and it's a secret," he whispers. Sambar gets a new identity when he says there are ten types he makes.

From Delhi, Nagpur to Hyderabad, Arusuvai has catered to umpteen weddings. This is his first Kerala visit, however. From 55 items to 26, the choice is yours. How much? Rs 200 or so. But what if there are 55 items? Would the rate be very much higher? "Whether it is 55 items or 26, consumption is the same by way of weight. You can eat only as much as your stomach can hold. So, the rates will not be very different," he says with a grin. Now isn't that common sense and very good business sense too?

"But I will go only to very good mandapams and very good people," he adds. The fruit stall and vegetable carving section attest to his habit of moving with the times. On a giant pumpkin were the words `Divya' and `Rajeev' carved out aesthetically.

All kinds of juices were offered at the juice stall he set up at the marriage venue at the Gowri Kalyanamandapam, Ernakulam. There were 16 kinds of sweets at this wedding. He can make more of course.

Which is your favourite dish? "Never ask a a vidwan, in music or cooking, what his favourite is. They are all very, very special, ragas and curries," Arusuvai Arasu Natarajan states matter-of-factly.

Kaaju kathli

Here's kaaju kathli, the Arusuvai way.

Ingredients:

Kaaju - 100 gms
Sugar - 150 gms
Cardamom - 5 gms
Water - 50 gms

Method:

Powder the kaaju. Boil the water, add the cardamom, then sugar. Finally, add the powdered kaaju. When it gets sticky, turn off the flame and level out the mass, cut it into diamond shapes and serve ten people, one a piece, eh?

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