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Pongal Special: 72-YO Girija Paati Sells Podis, Sweets & Snacks Made From 100-YO Family Recipes

Searching for special Pongal food like Ven Pongal and Paruppu Vadai. Girija Venkatachalam runs ‘Girijapaati Foods’ to offer authentic homemade podis, snacks, sweets, pickles, and savouries.

Pongal Special: 72-YO Girija Paati Sells Podis, Sweets & Snacks Made From 100-YO Family Recipes

As Pongal approaches, Girija Venkatachalam’s home is filled with festive joy. The air is rich with the scent of ghee-fried cashews, raisins, and cardamom. Paati (Tamil for grandmother) and her women helpers are energetically preparing special dishes for the festival. Despite working hard, fatigue doesn’t show on their faces; the home is lively with excitement and laughter.

This 72-year-old runs ‘Girijapaati Foods’ where she sells traditional home-style South Indian food items with “secret family recipes that are over 100 years old!”

Under the brand, she offers around 40 varieties of authentic homemade podis, snacks, sweets, pickles, and savouries — including garlic paruppu podi, bisibele bath, thengai podi, vepillai katti, black ulundhu laddu — and the list goes on.

Paati has recently introduced ready-to-cook Pongal must-haves like Chakkarai Pongal, Ven Pongal, and the crispy Paruppu Vadai.
Paati has recently introduced ready-to-cook Pongal must-haves like Chakkarai Pongal, Ven Pongal, and the crispy Paruppu Vadai.

To make the festival more joyous for urban residents, she recently launched ready-to-cook Pongal must-haves like Chakkarai Pongal, Ven Pongal, and the crispy Paruppu Vadai.

“Nowadays, many children move out for studies and jobs. While they crave traditional food, they lack time to cook it, so I decided to provide them with easy access to authentic home-style food. Although it is best if you cook your food at home to live a long healthy life. But if you lack time, then you come to me because I’ll give you what I eat and what my family eats,” she says.

Irrespective of the large number of orders the business receives, Girija says she prepares all food items just the way she cooks for her grandchildren.

No doubt then that her phone is constantly ringing as demand for her South Indian delights is far and wide. But here’s something interesting, this Chennai resident had not always been fond of cooking. Then how did she set up a brand that is enslaving people’s tastebuds?

In conversation with The Better India, paati shares all about her entrepreneurial journey.

Paati and her women helpers are energetically preparing special dishes for the festival.
Paati and her women helpers are energetically preparing special dishes for the festival.

A kitchen mishap that led to a fulfilling culinary journey

Born in Chennai, Girija was the eldest of six siblings. Her family hailed from Kalpathi village, located on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border.

“We lived in a big joint family of 40 people. My mother would be occupied in the kitchen. So, I was entrusted with the duties of taking care of my siblings — from waking them up, taking them to school, and helping them finish their homework to feeding them and putting them to sleep,” she says.

Girija never entered the kitchen until 1968, which is when she got married. The 18-year-old bride was asked to fry papadums for the family. “I had never cooked before. This was the first time that I had stepped inside the kitchen. I did not know what to do but I was scared to tell it to my mother-in-law,” she recalls.

Girija says she prepares all food items just the way she cooks for her grandchildren.
Girija says she prepares all food items just the way she cooks for her grandchildren.

“Anyway, I poured oil into a large pan and stood like half a foot away from it. I threw a piece of papadum into the overheated oil. It splattered over me. As a result, my blouse got stuck to the skin and I suffered severe burns on my shoulder. For the next month, I couldn’t come out of my room as I couldn’t wear a blouse. So, that is how my first day of cooking at my in-laws’ went,” she laughs.

But that day, Girija decided she must learn to cook.

“My mother-in-law started teaching me the basics and nuances of cooking. Eventually, she taught me the traditional family recipes. Whenever I would visit my mother, she would also share her culinary skills with me. I was learning diverse recipes from both of my mothers. In fact, my grandmothers also passed on their knowledge to me,” says Girija, who lives with her small joint family.

That was how Girija’s culinary journey began. And today, a grandmother herself, she uses her family’s secret recipes to feed thousands of people who crave home-style South Indian food.

Paati offers around 40 varieties of authentic homemade podis, snacks, sweets, pickles, and savouries.
Paati offers around 40 varieties of authentic homemade podis, snacks, sweets, pickles, and savouries.

It’s never too late to run a business!

Before starting the food company, Girija had been cooking traditional delights for her relatives and friends for over five decades. She commercialised her products when the demand for her products grew outside her extended family.

The idea to run a company came to her amid the COVID-19 pandemic when men from low-income backgrounds in her community started losing their jobs. “Their wives would come to me for jobs as they lost their means to feed their families,” she says.

Lovingly called paati (Tamil for grandmother), Girija started employing those women in her kitchen. Alongside, as the demand for her products grew, she officially launched her company ‘Girija Paati’s’ in 2021.

Every festive season, the team caters to at least 2,000 orders from across the country from states like Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Gujarat.

Meanwhile, Girija, even at the age of 72, continues to dedicate at least 10 hours to cooking every day. Her day starts with cooking meals for her workers, then experimenting with food items in the kitchen, supervising the workers, and winding up the day by checking the accounts.

“If it was not for this business, I don’t know what I would have been doing. About 10 years back, I lost my husband, and gradually, all my children and grandchildren moved out one by one. I had nothing much to do. Once, I had 100 members in my extended family, now I did not have enough people to take care of. Everybody got busy. But now I have so many people to feed,” she smiles.

“I agree that I need to slow down. I know that in 10 years, I may not have this energy level. But I do not wish to take retirement till my last day,” says paati as she goes on to cater to her next set of orders for Pongal.

If you want to try Girija Paati’s South Indian delights, you can order here.

Edited by Pranita Bhat. All photos: Girija Paati.

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