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Mouth-watering rolls

A factory in Ambattur Industrial Estate is rolling out machine-made and hygienic chapatis, rotis and parathas...


THE IT executive opening his lunch at Tidel Park, a passenger on Southern Railways, a patient at a diabetic centre, a young orphan attached to Udavum Karangal and a home-maker in Adyar have formed an unexpected link. They all eat chapatis that slid out of the same machine.

It is definitely tempting. Here they are, neatly-packed, round, equal-sized chapatis. Take it plain or with mint, coriander or health-giving methi leaves. There are parathas that can be rolled with vegetables, cheese or meat. Or puri rounds that puff up when dropped in hot oil. A bonanza for the busy, working woman rushing home to put a decent dinner together.

But is it safe? Specially as a permanent main course of a family meal? "Come to our unit in Ambattur," says Mr. Balasubramani, chairman, one-man board of directors at Exquisita Foods Pvt. Ltd. "And see for yourself." The unit is a large shed at the Ambattur Industrial Estate.

Empty spaces stare at it from three sides and another food unit operates on the fourth. "I chose this shed precisely because there are no polluting units nearby," is the explanation. You step in to watch the journey of the fresh-smelling wheat flour down the Chinese-dragon-like machine. In a natural progression, the raw powder is fluffed into a large stainless steel vat and enriched by the addition of the ingredients marked on the plastic wrap. Jerry cans of mineral water and a rotating paddle knead it into smooth dough, the dream of any roti maker.

The dough is then lumped into a divider which neatly drops small balls into aluminium cups that empty them on a flat surface to be pressed into even circles. An ordeal by three layers of gas fire later they come out clean and dry; low heat for puris that have to be fried and high temperature for the rotis that come out fully cooked. Three-tier cooling sends them into the hands of waiting packers wearing gloves and hairnets. A few hours of "weathering' to see if they are ok and off they go into delivery vans.

If you think manufacturing ready-to-eat chapatis is unusual business, the maker's story is no less interesting. A mechanical engineer, Balasubramani married the daughter of a man with a business vision. His globe-trotting father-in-law convinced him of a market opening for machine-made parathas. He applied for a US visa hoping to find the apparatus and his troubles began. The visa was rejected six times. He then spent a year in the US before he found a pizza base-making machine in Texas.

But would it accept Indian wheat? He carried 200 kg of atta with him on subsequent trips for trials. Eventually he made a deal, dismantled the giant and shipped it home.

He landed and discovered that the government had banned the import of second-hand machines while he was scouting for one. His one and a half crore investment would now be wiped clean. He camped in Delhi and made attending commerce ministry meetings his daily mission. "They wanted to know if I could sell the 60,000 chapatis my machine could make per day," says Balasubramani without malice. "At optimum level the roti-maker rolls out 8600 pieces per hour and my overheads come down considerably. Industrial establishments that run mass canteens are able to serve their employees hot puris without a mess and within a short time." At Amabattur he faced another hurdle. "How can chapati making be labelled as a small scale industry?" the authorities wondered.

Eventually, he carted the parts to his shed, modified and assembled the mechanism. He hired and trained workers in machine operation and cleanliness. He changed the recipe for every seasonal wheat crop that grows in 200 varieties in India. After trials, errors and 20 kg of dough that had to be dumped, he put his act together. He now gets the wheat ground to a certain roughness. Though the machine is big enough to take in 100 kg he mixes only 50 kg at a time to maintain the texture.

All fine. But the question lingers. How does he keep the packets microbe-free? "The floor is washed with sodium hydrochloride daily," he says. Kemin, an American company periodically analyses his products. His preservatives are approved by them. Chapatis that cross the expiry date are fed to animals. He makes sure that the atta comes from fungus-free wheat. He buys shredded, dehydrated coriander, methi and mint for flavouring.

GEETA PADMANABHAN

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