Most people take decades to attain a high degree of skill in their respective fields. Meanwhile, Yogambal Sundar, a 57-year-old celebrity chef from Chennai, is also a classically trained Carnatic music vocalist and Veena player.
Apart from these talents, this understated culinary master also overcame the premature death of her husband a decade ago and public body shaming to appear numerous times on cooking shows like Rusikkalam Vanga on Puthuyugam TV and Anjarai Petti (Zee Tamil).
Through her appearances on these shows, she has taught many in Tamil Nadu how to prepare traditional dishes around festival days, pre and post-natal dishes for pregnant and new mothers, combination meals, lunch box recipes, etc. She also has her own YouTube channel with over 386,000 subscribers where she has presented over 400 recipes.
And Yogambal has an interesting way of categorising her recipes. “If these were to be served at a restaurant, they would come under a South Indian Thali (Ela Saapadu) with a very elaborate spread of healthy dishes,” she says.
“My recipes are predominantly categorised under forgotten/traditional and healthy recipes for pregnant and post-natal women. On my YouTube channel, there are over 400 recipes, including North Indian, Chinese, millet-based, appetizers, juices and street food, among others, that have been received well. But my subscribers enjoy the dishes that they are used to having in their homes the most,” Yogambal tells The Better India.
What stands out most about her YouTube channel is how adept she is at giving the precise measurement of ingredients that allows viewers to recreate the joyful experience of consuming these healthy dishes. From Angaya Podi, a combination of five healthy herbs for people with digestive disorders or breast-feeding mothers and Jeera Rasam to Legiyam, a traditional and a special recipe prepared during Diwali, mainly to help digest those rich festive sweets, and Milagu Kuzhambu, a Tamarind-based dish, she has prepared them all.
Developing a Passion for Cooking
Although an inspiration to many today, Yogambal never saw herself as a successful chef growing up. Born and raised by a joint middle-class family in the quaint Thiruvanmiyur locality of Chennai, life was rather straightforward for Yogambal, whose father ran a newspaper agency and mother was a homemaker who composed bhajans.
“My childhood was pretty straight forward involving school, music and household chores. Pursuing education beyond a certain point wasn’t my interest at the time. So, after completing high school at the Besant Theosophical High School, I studied music—a family tradition—at the Kalakshetra Foundation. There I majored in classical singing and the Veena, learning from luminaries like Rajeswari Padmanabhan and Papanasam Mani,” she recalls, adding, “I tried to put off marriage for as long as possible but my family began discussing the matter when I turned 18. Soon, I had an arranged marriage with a man, whose family was from Mumbai where I had to move.”
When Yogambal got married at a young age, cooking wasn’t something that she was particularly good at doing. She only knew the very basics of “vegetarian Brahmin cooking”. Having said that, her late husband was a foodie, and was extremely keen on trying a variety of recipes. Seeing her husband’s love for food is what first inspired a young Yogambal to take up cooking. Over time, she developed a genuine passion for it and even early managed to single-handedly cook for over 60 people during one public occasion.
A Celebrity Chef And A Few Classical Notes
One of the reasons why Yogambal developed a passion for cooking is how well it intersected with the other passions of her life—classical singing and playing the Veena.
“Music has always been part of my family for years. It has been embedded in me since birth. As I grew up, my interest in learning the ragas and talas was attracting me to further pursue classical music. I chose Veena as my instrument, which gave me a sense of composure, sanity, tranquility and balance in life. Music was meant for me. Some say music is a form of art. I would say so is cooking. Music requires immense practise to set yourself up to a stage where you are confident in your own skin, as does cooking. For me, cooking and music go hand-in-hand,” she says
In early 2017, Yogambal was approached by her sister-in-law on behalf of Puthuyugam, the sister channel of Puthiya Thalaimurai TV. They were looking for a chef to appear on their show Rusikalam Vanga. Since everyone in the family offered their support, she accepted the offer to take her passions a step further.
But her decision wasn’t an easy one as she suffered from obesity and body image issues.
“For years, body shaming has been a major issue for me. I used to be very apprehensive of how I would look in front of the camera and what comments would come my way instead of hearing people talking about my culinary skills. Even today, I receive a lot of hate on my YouTube videos about my body image with people telling me what I should or should not be doing in front of the camera. It has taken me quite a while to overcome and ignore these comments but with immense support from my family, I have learnt how to handle it and positively reinforce myself. All I would like to say is with a positive outlook and strong support system, anybody can achieve what they set their mind to eventually,” she says.
As Yogambal’s popularity grew on television, her children posited a simple idea — why not start her own YouTube channel?
“The inspiration behind this idea were my children, Ramprasad and Sowmya, who have always wanted me to have my own channel so that a larger audience can benefit from these recipes. It has been a very humbling experience. I must admit it’s especially nice when someone walks up to me and shares how one of my recipes has changed their approach to cooking or given them the confidence to cook better,” says Yogambal.
Some of the top trending recipes on her channel include Tamarind Rice, Adhirasam, Seedai, Laddu and Ribbon Pakoda. Her personal favourites fall within the realm of savouries and sweets (Bakshanam) made during the festive season. A self-confessed sweet tooth, she loves her 4 pm tea and a quick snack along with it as well.
But where does she source her 400+ recipes from? “Most of them are yesteryear recipes that have been handed down to me from my grandmother. But I also love to try out new cuisines around the world that offer vegan/vegetarian options. I try my best to come up with innovative concepts that offer a new spin on an old recipe. For example, I recently made Instant Adhirasam through a process of trial and error. I wanted to design a traditional Adhirasam sweet recipe for youngsters who could quickly make them at home. My first recipe on the channel was also an instant Peda. I believe that adapting and innovating to the current trend is as important as following traditional recipes,” notes the celebrity chef.
While Yogambal has made a name for her herself as a celebrity chef, what do her children think of her cooking?
“We are extremely happy that she has reached such great heights. She has inspired people from so many walks of life and has constantly been evolving her dishes to match today’s trends. We are usually the first to taste what she cooks on the channel,” says Ramprasad, who has also composed the music for her YouTube channel.
Asked what’s their favourite dish and Ramprasad replies, “There is never just one special or favourite dish. Who wouldn’t love their mother’s cooking, especially if she is a celebrity chef? She also encourages us to cook a lot and we love to compare who in the family delivers a dish that offers a flavour that is closest to what she makes.”
The First Dish I Ruined
“What I remember from the early days is the first recipe I ruined, which was Rava Kesari, a popular sweet dish. One day, some guests showed up at the very last minute and requested it. Since I didn’t know how to make it, I improvised. It was so off the mark that the dish had lumps and was too sweet. Although the guests were polite enough to say it was nice when I tasted it, I knew it was bad. Now, I know how to make it,” she laughs.
Semolina (Roasted) – 1 cup
Water – 4 Cups
Sugar (White/Brown) – 1 1/2 Cups
Saffron or Food Colour (Optional) – A pinch
Ghee – 3/4 Cup
Cashew and Raisins – As required
Cardamom Powder – 1/4 teaspoon
- Add 1 tablespoon ghee in a pan and roast the cashew and raisins in it for 2 minutes.
- Transfer it to another container, and in the same pan roast the sooji (Semolina) even if it’s already roasted, on the same pan for a few minutes till you see a mild colour change.
- Transfer the roasted sooji to another plate, and in the same pan again add 4 cups of water.
- Once the water boils, bring down the flame to a simmer and add the roasted sooji to it.
- Keep stirring while slowly adding the sooji to avoid lumps.
- Increase the flame once all the sooji has absorbed the water and then add the 1 1/2 cups of sugar to it while stirring.
- Note that the sooji and sugar mixture solidifies pretty quickly.
- Once the mixture has become a bit more solid, add the saffron or colouring, and mix well.
- Add the rest of the ghee to it to give it a non-sticky and smooth finish.
- This entire process takes anywhere from 7-10 minutes.
- Once you get a good non-sticky consistency, add the roasted cashews and raisins, and a 1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder and mix it for a few minutes.
- Serve it hot and enjoy.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)