Interview with Viji Varadharajan
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Viji, I am so happy that continents apart, we have met on the internet! I am very interested in your cookbooks because when I lived in Chennai, I spent a lot of time in the homes of Tamil Brahmins. Are your cookbooks marketed toward Tamil Brahmins predominately? Which groups of people within Tamil Nadu, within India or the world have contacted you about this cuisine?
When I published my first book ‘Samayal – The Pleasures of South Indian Vegetarian Cooking’ the only thing I thought of was - first I need to take Meenakshi ammal’s ‘Samaithu Paar’ (Cook and See) beyond the realms of the orthodox Tamil. Her’s was first printed in 1951. She did not have money enough to print her text so she pawned her jewelry and did it. ‘Samaithu Paar’ is a single text running from beginning to end. The book was part of the bride’s trousseau when she left for her new life. So after two publications I realized that I needed to take my book beyond the regular mold. So my Mudaliar friends and others outside the Brahmin community started contacting me and expressing amazement at vegetable gravy/curry recipes that can be prepared without onions! I had already crossed a milestone then. There were some stereotyped people in my community who remarked ‘Oh well, it is after all a sambhar-rasam book’. Believe me it was initially tough. I never spent money on marketing as I thought that was spending a lot of money. So I kept prodding on and never giving up! So I would say though I targeted the Tamil-Brahmin community it worked otherwise too.
Meeting and interacting with people from so many backgrounds must provide you some new insights or thoughts on the culture and food habits described in your books. Would you like to share some things you have learned from interacting with people who have read your book?
Oh yes once the books were on the shop shelves, once the internet and later blogging swayed the lives of people my interaction with those in India and around was tremendous. I was interacting with people in/from my own home. The editor of Vegetarian Times US sent me a set of questions as she wanted to know more on south Indian vegetarian cuisine. I then realized that she knew so little about it. It took me reams of paper to enlighten them. We had to do a lot of research and my editor Padmini Natarajan chipped in. I have had a series of interactions like this through the email. It is at these times I realized that ours was a unique cuisine that does not have recorded recipes. It comes from generations through temples into homes. The younger generation was moving away from our eating habits as they were drawn into the fast food culture like droves of bees in a beehive. I am now trying to get the young back into the fold of our hoary culture and habits.
I have read your mails and have seen the blog of OneDoodle Land written by Japanese girls who have come to your house and learned cooking from you. What inspired you to open your house to others to teach cooking in person? Please share your thoughts and impressions on teaching cooking, a hands on activity, to beginners.
Video of Japanese girls learning Tamil Brahmin Cookery from OneDoodle Land.
One of the Japanese girls who is temporarily working in a software firm in Chennai wanted to get in touch with me as she had bought my book ‘Samayal’ from the book store. She wrote to me in my email and the rest is history. Her friends came from Tokyo just to learn this cuisine. They persuaded me to take two sessions for them. This was a new area for me and I decided to experiment if it is purely to promote this cuisine. Kurumi Arimoto who did the entire session with me is a cook book writer and her mom Yoko Arimoto is a celebrity cookbook author herself. Initially Kurumi is going to design menus for Kinder garden kids in which she is planning to include some of the tambram recipes. Later Akemi Yoshii (the young girl who lives in Chennai) and Kurumi are going to put together a cookbook with these recipes in Japanese. So much for email and cyberspace!! I am teaching a few expats French ladies and an Italian lady the rudiments of this cuisine the coming week. I will take it from here. (See related links after the article for more interviews and information on these topics.)
Writing cookbooks is an art form in itself. Some of the traditional recipes maybe first recorded in book form by you. Some of these recipes have many steps and require some complex methods, especially when compared to simpler preparations especially in places like America. What are some tips you keep in mind to write recipes that are understandable to an audience of different ethnic backgrounds and different cooking skill levels?
Meenakshi Ammal had most of these recipes in her books. All I needed to do was – do it the way I did for my family and most importantly simplify it so I may attract the younger generation to this art of cooking – the sattvic way. Food was always offered to the Gods before it came to the table! I distinctly remember my grandma did it. I have yet to address to an American audience. I have simplified the cooking with modern kitchen gadgets; but beyond that there is still a lot that needs to be done. I need to broadcast like Padmalakshmi (Salman Rushdie’s ex wife) to be able to create awareness to this cuisine. There certainly is a lot to be done on this field. I know I have created a ripple with my awards – four of my books have got five awards in five different categories. The gourmand organization is doing pioneering work in field of cookbooks and wine books – recognizing and identifying the best ones in the world! They are the Oscar for cookbooks and wine books. My awards are certainly getting me somewhere. I know some of them out there sell their books as money spinners. But I am not out to make a profit only to create an awareness. The profits I know will follow. This is my passion first not a business venture.
When you first started writing cookbooks, did you think you would be writing so many volumes?
I want to realize my dreams in this lifetime. If more people come to me with questions because they want to learn I will readily oblige. By this I would have already created what I set out to achieve.
What are some of your most cherised accomplishments till date? What aspirations are waiting to be fulfilled? How do you see this cookbook venture growing and branching out?
Any other thoughts you would like to share?
I sold my first title for 6 years before the other books started rolling out. I asked Padmini Natarajan to co-author one of them as it was getting out of hand - the information was pouring in and I needed all the help I could. It is amazing to know that there is so much to learn in this cuisine. Each of my five books have different thoughts and information to share in this cuisine and culture. There is an amazing link with south Indian classical forms of dance and music (Bharathanatyam & Carnatic music), yoga, ayurveda, temples and this food. They have survived through the ages and I am convinced that they will do so for a long time to come. In ancient times we were asked to keep away from cooking and the kitchen during our menstrual periods as the Hindus worshipped the fire too. Should we not then propagate this culture to the world?
Viji Varadarajan is an ambassador of the Tamil Brahmin cookery culture. Her passion for her culture has taken her on amazing journeys within her kitchen and outside her home as well, interacting with and educating Indians and Internationals on the beauties and wonders of this cuisine and culture. As more and more curious people from all over the world are exposed to Viji’s books and friendly personality, her awareness of what to do and where to go next in bringing awareness to us on Tamil Brahmin (tambram) cooking comes from questions and observations from anyone who’s curious. She is passionate and steadfast in acquiring knowledge and answers. If she doesn’t know the answer, she calls on friends, family and anyone else who may have insight into the inquiries. Previously, all these insights into the culture and culinary delights were passed down through the generations through stories and lessons from elders to the younger generations; they were infrequently, if at all, recorded in books. The best reference of yesteryear was testing the brains, wisdom, experience and oratory skills of the family and community elders. Viji’s approach combinies the traditional with the modern- oratory wisdom recorded in the written word. One of the attractions of India for both Indians and non-Indians alike is the seemingly effortless combining of the traditional and the modern, in some ways, one can say Viji is continuing this art form through the medium of cookery! Thank you Viji!
This post is a one in the series of Inspirational Blogger Interviews
Viji’s website- Viji Samayal
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