Manju Devi Poddar has been cooking since she was 15 and follows one motto religiously — feed everyone.
As we speak on a video call, the delightful lady (with her pepper-grey hair rolled up in a bun sans hair ties and a sweet smile) invites me to her home for a meal. “Come to Kolkata, come to my house and taste my food,” she says, with her ever-so doting grandmotherly voice. She must’ve guessed my weakness for Bengali sweets, I thought. But Nani Manju, as her fans in Kolkata know her, loves to serve everyone her food.
“Whatever I make tastes the best,” she proudly proclaims. That would explain why this 65-year-old woman’s savoury and sweets are a hit all over Kolkata and have even reached Hong Kong and the USA.
“Over the years, cooking has become my hobby, and I like it a lot. All the food that I cook comes out well because I learnt to cook with joy and interest, and not as a household chore after marriage. And so, people have always appreciated my food,” Nani Manju says.
Her personal favourites to cook include ‘Mava ki Parwal’, a sweet dish made by stuffing the pointed gourd; ‘Nariyal Chakki’, a fudge-like sweet dish made from coconut, kesar and pista; and ‘Mava Peda’.
And Nani Manju is eager to share her recipes with anyone.
“For ‘Mava ki Parwal’, first, peel the parwal [pointed gourd] and boil it. After it cools, I remove the seeds from the middle. Then in a pan, dry roast khoya. Now add kesar, pista and sugar to the mix. The parwal is then cooked in sugar syrup. After it cools, I stuff the vegetable with the khoya mix… My friend used to make this, and she taught me how to cook it. It is delicious,” says the chef.
So what do over 50 years of cooking mean for this sexagenarian, and where does her story begin?
Thrill of the first salary
“My mother-in-law taught me how to cook,” she says.
“I got married at a very young age of 15 and had never seen the kitchen before. But when I started cooking, I took a liking to it. The kind of interest I didn’t show in my studies, I showed in cooking,” she laughs.
About cooking her first-ever meal, she says, “I tried making roti and aloo sabzi, and it turned out very bad. It took me almost two to three years and rigorous training from my mother-in-law to master the basics.”
Though, it was Nani Manju’s 21-year-old granddaughter, Yashi Chowdhary, who pressed on for her to start ‘Nani’s Special’ — a venture of her homemade food from which she earned her first salary.
“I love Nani’s pedas and ‘Nariyal Chakkis’,” says an enthusiastic Yashi, who is currently doing her an Economics and Business course at University College London
‘Nariyal Chakki’, or coconut barfi, I’m told, is a common delicacy found in Kolkata. “But I make it very differently. I make this sweet from the tender coconut, which has a lot of water instead of dry coconut. This is why my ‘Nariyal ki Chakki’ is tastier than any other shop in Kolkata,” says Nani Manju, who is ever-willing to share her recipe secrets.
“From when we were little, we were used to Nani sending us sweets for all festivals,” says Yashi, adding, “During the lockdown, I had the chance to stay with my grandmother for the first time for over a month when my dad was tested positive for the coronavirus. Over breakfast one day, I mentioned to her that she should start her own cooking venture.”
“We were thinking of launching this for a long time, but Yashi was the one who prompted me to do something,” says Nani Manju.
In the midst of the pandemic, Nani’s Special was launched on Janmashtami on 12 August 2020.
While Yashi and her mother got busy designing the logo that was then forwarded on WhatsApp groups, Nani Manju made all the preparations for the orders. Still, she was not alone as the Chowdhary family called for temporary help.
The first logo had the words ‘Nani’s Special’ written on a background with traditional colours and designs and a rolling pin near the apostrophe. Now, an animated image of Nani stands as the logo.
“We started with offering a Janmashtami platter which contained four sweets — Mava ki Parwal, Nariyal Chakki, Pedas and Ajwain Chakki,” says Yashi.
She adds, “We weren’t expecting the number of orders we got. So much so that Nani had to prepare her sweets from scratch the next day. Initially, we received orders from friends and family, but the day before Janmashtami, we received a tonne of orders.”
A total of 40 platters were sold during their trial run. Nani Manju says her first earnings of Rs 3,000 is still kept safely in her drawer. “I am never going to spend that money,” she says.
Their social media pages receive an average of 10 orders per day and go up to 30. Shortly after, on Diwali, they received requests for delivery overseas to Hong Kong and the US.
The duo says they do regular deliveries to Bengaluru, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Dibrugarh, Assam, among other corners of India. “We have tie-ups with courier companies. We mostly send non-perishable items like Bhujia, Mathi, papads, pickles which are packed in air-tight containers,” says Yashi, who takes care of the logistics and the marketing of the food.
She adds, “During Diwali, we had a lot more orders, with our revenue touching Rs 4 lakhs. For Makar Sankranti, we earned Rs 2 lakhs.”
While the fancy packaging for festive platters and baskets is done by house help, Nani Manju gets help from professionals for her bigger orders. “Today, we have built a five-member team that helps her regularly,” Yashi says.
Competition from the likes of Haldiram’s
Like all businesses started during the lockdown, the Chowdharys were also sceptical of the outcome. “We were very sceptical about taking help from outside. Also, a lot of people didn’t want to step out for pickups. They wanted their sweets delivered. So, coordinating for deliveries was initially a challenge,” says Yashi.
Over time, the team at Nani’s Special has developed a process that works for them. They give customers the options of self-pickup and delivery to their doorsteps. “Kolkata is a very small place. We use both my uncles’ offices in Park Street, Central Kolkata and one at North Kolkata as pickup points,” Yashi adds.
Ask the chef about her challenges, and she has no complaints. “I didn’t get tired even though I sometimes have to make everything from scratch for new orders,” says Nani Manju, adding, “My husband has been playing cards for 17 years at home. So I am used to last-minute preparations and cooking for many of his friends.”
During the lockdown, Nani Manju has learnt how to play cards too. “She wipes us all clean, including my grandfather,” Yashi laughs.
But Nani Manju never dreamed of commercialising her cooking. “My mother-in-law loved cooking and loved to teach us. Then, my husband and kids always wanted hot food. So I learnt to love it,” says Nani Manju.
For the seven months that Nani’s Special has been operational, it has added new items to the menu such as — bhujia, suvali, namkeen chivda, samosas, kachori, Matar ki Pudi, cutlet, among others.
Yashi says Nani’s bhujia has got to be customers’ favourite. “We have the same customers calling in thrice a week to order a kilo of Nani’s Special Bhujia,” she adds.
Nani interrupts here, saying, “We have never felt the need to buy Haldiram’s Bhujia because I make it better.”
Her famous bhujia takes just half an hour to prepare, she adds.
Having years of experience with these recipes, Nani Manju is quite proud that her proportions are always spot on — be it for big or small orders. She adds, “For every recipe, the quantity is ingrained in my memory. I had to make five Nariyal Chakkis today, and I made exactly five orders, nothing more or less.”
But Yashi has bigger troubles on her mind. She says, “We are always worried about Nani getting tired, so we keep telling her to take a break, at least on Sundays or perhaps once in two weeks. But she says — we shouldn’t refuse to feed anyone.”
She adds, “Even at this age, watching my grandmother in the kitchen is inspiring. She inspires us to do better every day.”
And Nani Manju has a message to the readers as well, “We, especially women, often underestimate our capabilities… Never underestimate your talents! And don’t let your age determine the work you do. You’re never too old to become independent.”
To order from Nani’s Special, you can call +91 9830755381.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)