As a writer, there are some stories and protagonists that you genuinely enjoy working on. This story, about Chennai based mother-son duo Rama Raghunathan and Rakesh Raghunathan, who don many hats between them—homemaker, restaurateur, chef, connoisseur, food critic—is one of them.
Rakesh, who describes himself as a food raconteur is the first port of call for anyone wishing to explore any cuisine in South India. The highly regarded food critic curates menus for restaurants, has run a food services business, conducts TV and social media shows, workshops, and even food walks.
And he credits his love for everything food to his mother, Rama.
The duo also runs a popular series of short cooking videos in which Rama cooks traditional dishes while Rakesh provides the commentary, weaving in personal anecdotes and cooking tips.
While the food is undoubtedly delectable, watching the ease of conversation and the playful banter between the two, will leave you laughing out loud.
“Amma’s way of showing her love and affection was by cooking and ensuring that our tummies were full and happy,” begins Rakesh, who recounts that his love for food was seeded in him by his mother.
When I relay this to 67-year-old Rama, she smiles and says, “Food has a significant position in my life. From a very young age, I started helping around in the kitchen. Over the years, it has become the invisible thread that holds us all in the family together. There is no greater joy for me than whipping up a good meal.”
A menu curated with love
Rakesh recalls that in school, most of his friends would bringstaple ‘lunch items’ like curd rice, lemon rice, or other varieties of mixed rice and vegetables. But he would look forward to eating something new every day, and Rama never disappointed him.
“He had a very keen sense of rusi (taste) and a discerning palate from a very young age.”
Citing an example, she speaks about how Rakesh would relish something that most kids his age then would scorn at, like veppam poo (neem flower) rasam.
“There were a series of days when Rakesh would plead to me to send our cook to school so he could make him hot dosais there. He also maintained that no matter what he would study or accomplish in the future, he would always find his way back to food and working with it in some way. I knew then, that for this child, food was very important,” she recalls.
The wind beneath his wings
Rakesh remained true to his word. After graduating with a degree in management from Hartford University, USA, Rakesh walked off the beaten path to follow his passion and returned to India to start his food venture.
And he had his family’s wholehearted support.
“It was his decision to make,” says Rama with utter conviction. “Also, I firmly believe that there is no higher purpose than providing food for someone—it nourishes you and gives you the strength to do everything,” she says philosophically.
Rama is a firm believer in the fact that children are fully capable of making their own life choices, and as parents, the only thing that one should do is offer support.
“I never wanted them [Rakesh and his sister] to become engineers, lawyers, or doctors. The only piece of advice I gave them both is to look before they leap. I do not know what turns their life would have taken had I been authoritative and told them how to live their life. Now, whether good or bad, they take ownership of their actions, and for that, I am proud.”
Rakesh considers his mother’s support as the bedrock on which his passion and interests exist. Without it, he would have been living a completely different life.
Of Food and Music
In addition to his commercial food ventures, Rakesh is a storyteller and a performer (he is a gifted Carnatic vocal artiste).
He wanted to introduce traditional and forgotten recipes to today’s generation, and felt that the best way to pass on the knowledge was through workshops—in a small and intimate setting with a limited number of like-minded people.
A proud Rama tells me about one of the first workshops that he conducted at home.
“A week before the auspicious Aadi month, Rakesh decided to host an event at home commemorating its beginning. It saw about 50 people coming together, and Rakesh had it all together so beautifully.”
The menu was filled with food items native to the Tanjore belt—Kumbakonam Kadappa, Dangar pachadi, Pongal etc. “I still remember like it was yesterday. I remember relishing that event so much more than anything he has ever done outside the house,” she mentions.
Rakesh has since then conducted more than 75 food workshops, both in India and abroad. A beautiful amalgamation of food and music, these aim to bring back traditional and forgotten recipes.
Facing the camera together
Rakesh soon moved into making shows for regional television channels, which endeavoured to unearth hidden gems and local cuisines in interior parts of South India and bring rustic and traditional foods to the limelight.
To leverage the reach of social media and the internet, he launched a series of cooking videos and workshops.
However, his love for his mother’s recipes and his desire to showcase them to his followers led him to create, what I believe, is his best work.
Available on YouTube, Ammavum Naanum, is a show that Rakesh and Rama came together for, in which the mother-son duo literally cook up a storm. If one were to go through the comments, you would realise that what many people keep coming back for is to see the relationship that they share.
The occasional ribbing and banter between them, the mutual love and respect for each other and for food, and of course the recipes that they put together.
“While I enjoyed the experience thoroughly, I only wish they didn’t make me change my sarees so often during the shoot,” she tells me.
“I love the puliyogare she makes!”
“If from everything that she makes, I were to pick one dish, it would have to the puliyogare. It’s divine. It can be described as a work of art— and Amma has perfected it,” he says.
Rakesh also recollects how Rama would never shy away from approaching anyone to ask for a recipe. “She would be waiting to get the recipe, come home, and recreate it. So many times, I have seen her do this, and now I do it too.”
“If Amma doesn’t spend a minimum of 7 to 8 hours in the kitchen, she won’t clock out,” Rakesh says with a chuckle.
Just as we end our conversation, I ask Rama about her favourite dish from what Rakesh makes, and without missing a beat, she says, “His Mathura aloo and bun halwa.”
Rakesh, if you are reading this, do ensure that you make both these dishes for Rama to celebrate Mother’s Day this year!
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)