Were it not for its interesting culinary connection with Indian celebrities, Menar would be a relatively unremarkable village. Located about 30 kms away from Rajasthan’s Udaipur, this dusty and nondescript village has an illustrious history of producing talented cooks.
From Dhirubhai Ambani and the Hinduja brothers to Lata Mangeshkar and Juhi Chawla, Menaria chefs (this is how people from Menar identify themselves) have long handled the kitchens of some of India’s biggest millionaires and celebrities.
This list also includes wealthy Indian expats settled across the world. In fact, in England alone, there are more than half a dozen Menaria cooks who serve as head chefs in prominent Indian households.
Take for instance, 28-year-old Yashwant Menaria who manages the London kitchens of Hinduja brothers — S P Hinduja and G P Hinduja. At the young age of 14, he took the contract of running the canteen of the multinational company near his village and never looked back.
After working in Mumbai for more than a decade, a tenure which included a term in the kitchens of Ashok P Hinduja, the third Hinduja brother, he migrated to London. His successful journey finds resonance in the stories of several other Menaria cooks serving not just in London, but in Antwerp, Hong Kong, Nairobi, Dubai, Muscat, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and more.
Another Menaria cook with an interesting story is Poonamchand Aklingdasot. The now-retired Aklingdasot used to cook for Lata Mangeshkar’s family before he joined the Mumbai household of Dhirubhai Ambani in 1997.
He worked here for a decade, baking millet and wheat rotis, steamed khaman dhoklas, pohe, samosas and kachoris for the Ambani family, before he retired in 2007. The elderly cook now spends his days accompanying his family’s cattle on their grazing expeditions.
Interestingly, Aklingdasot has never done a professional course in cooking.
A school dropout, he learned the necessary culinary skills from his seniors, peers and recipe books of the late Tarla Dalal — a famous Indian chef, cookbook author and host of cooking shows, Dalal was renowned for her Gujarati recipes in particular.
Many of Aklingdasot’s seniors in the village have also never attended a cooking course. Yet they have been preparing dishes, from Mexican and Italian to Chinese and Continental, for several decades. In fact, the wife of late Bhairulal Rupjot (the Menaria cook who served in the Ambani household before Aklingdasot) still receives a monthly pension.
Other than impressive six-figure salaries (often in addition to free boarding, lodging and air travel!), the culinary expertise of Menar’s residents has also contributed to the development of the village.
Vijay Lal Dahot worked for Maghanmal Jethanand Pancholia, one of Dubai’s oldest Indian expatriates, for nearly 15 years. When Dahot retired, Pancholia decided to give his cook a retirement gift of much greater significance than just a monthly pension.
The highly respected businessman, who is credited with having introduced electricity to Dubai in 1957, spent over Rs 1.42 crore to construct a 100-bed hospital, a secondary school and a community centre in Menar. The school and the hospital are managed by the Overseas Indian Education Trust, of which Dahot is a member, while the community centre is managed by the village committee.
The village’s preferred profession also inspired Prabhulal R. Joshi (a resident of Menar) to partner with Gujarati trader Jitendra Shah and float his hospitality company in 1987 that would help local cooks find employment in good homes. Called Hina Tours and Travels, the firm has since trained hundreds of Menaria cooks and placed them in well-paying jobs.
Interestingly, in the recent months, Menar has been in the news for setting an example in community-driven conservation.
To ensure a healthy eco-system for the birds visiting the village’s many lakes, the villagers have stopped using water from these lakes for irrigation. Furthermore, fishing has been prohibited and regular weeding is done to get rid of water hyacinth overgrowth.
The village has also set up a group of volunteers, called Pakshi Mitras (friends of birds), who ensure a safe stay for the winged visitors to its surrounding wetlands. From rescuing injured birds to conducting regular anti-poaching patrols, these efforts have led to a marked increase in the number of both migratory birds and tourists visiting this little-known village!